The Tindersticks have this song called “Travelling Light,” a string-drenched ballad of lost love and emotional baggage that plays out like the final conversation between two ex-lovers. There’s a line in that song that goes something like “There’s crack in the room where the rain pours through/That’s where you always like to sit.” If you took that line, and the images that it conjures up of a lonely and vulnerable place, and were to record a fitting soundtrack, you’d have Empress.
Springing from the same musical camp as Hood, Empress shares that group’s penchant for making sparse music that’s unsettling and beautiful. But Empress goes one step further, stripping their music down to the barest essentials. The music becomes so intimate that it’s a bit uncomfortable at times. There’s no gloss and sheen over the imperfections that pop up from time to time. And on a track like “Danger I Know,” with it’s nocturnal drones and barely-there bass, it’s fairly spooky. The vocals, provided by Nicola, hover on the edge of the song, like they were recorded with her in a big, empty room and the microphone located somewhere down the hall. Half the time, you’ll find yourself struggling to hear what she’s saying, and even so you’ll have a hard time making it out.
As with Low, Empress’ raison d’etre is to make the spaces between the notes sound as important as, if not more important, than the notes themselves. The album’s ultra lo-fi approach means that the other sounds you hear — the crackle of vinyl, the squeak of the strings, Nicola’s breaths between words — become as integral to the songs as the actual instruments. On “All We’ve Seen,” the only thing that sounds like it was recorded properly is a rainstorm. The sound of the drops hitting the concrete become the primary percussion, the drums playing second fiddle to the downpour’s rhythm. And Nicola’s breathy vocals exist somewhere behind that wall of water.
The one frustrating thing about this album is its brevity, with most tracks lasting two minutes or less. Unlike Low, who are content to stretch their songs out to 15 minutes and have the necessary patience to let them fully develop, Empress’ approach feels fragmented and jarring at times. By the time you start to appreciate a song and the fragile beauty it contains, it’s over and the next track is already halfway done. It does sometimes add to the album’s poignancy, like music recorded for and about fading photos and memories. But on a more realistic note, it too often sounds like the song was never really developed and all we’re getting is a rough idea of what Empress wanted the song to sound like.
With song titles like “Here It Isn’t,” “Don’t Give Up On Me,” “Hey, It’s Over,” and “I Am Not Cut Out For This,” it’s a safe bet to say that Nicola isn’t singing the latest in indie motivational therapy. Unfortunately, the songs’ short lengths don’t let you wallow in the band’s melancholy, no matter how much you want to. Then again, if Empress were to stretch out their songs, I’m afraid that Nicola’s vocals would be too delicate to hold out for that long.