Låpsley’s debut EP for XL Records, Understudy, surprisingly comes during the annual music drought of early January. The British singer came to attention last year with the excellent single “Station,” which paired her haunting vocals with a second, pitched down lead to sound like a duet. The four songs on Understudy further explore this tactic, sounding more rounded and dynamic than one musician could possibly accomplish in writing pop this sparse and quiet.
Opener “Falling Short” starts with mellow piano and her unaltered voice, and gradually evolves into a mishmash of double-tracked vocals flowing in and out over intensifying chords. She softly repeats “One month ‘til February” throughout the track, somehow adding to the desperate melancholia of duet-ing with herself. After there, the EP splits wide open and explores grander, more complicated musical ideas that still center on her distinct sound. Even when the tracks get groovier and more rhythmically focused, they still rely on quietness and atmospheric sadness, as on the most danceable song of the batch, “8896.” The music behind her symphony of voice remains subdued as not to detract from the vocals, but she already seems more confident in her arrangements than last year’s entirely minimal “Station.” Besides low piano chords, she fills space with feedback swells, claps, and bass-heavy rhythmic stabs.
She undeniably has an ear for melody and pop structure, evoking a cross between synth-pop masters Purity Ring and label mate Adele. “Dancing” briefly takes focus off of the vocals and sneakily brings in an earworm of a keyboard hook, and centerpiece “Brownlow” goes through enough musical ideas to fill three lesser songs. The latter of the two steals the show, panning vocal tracks over a synthetic string section, with beats randomly cutting out and Låpsley’s voice remaining as the sole thread keeping the song together.