Before Elizabeth Harper was the lead singer for Brooklyn synth-pop trio Class Actress, she was recording singer-songwriter-y stuff by herself. Listening to Class Actress’ Journal of Ardency EP it’s pretty difficult to image what Harper’s guitar-based stuff sounded like, as her vocal presence here doesn’t seem to bear any resemblance to the type of melodramatic overreaching that tends to make the Fiona Apple-type stuff work. In fact, sometimes Harper sounds almost bored. (Ironically, when she sings the word “boring” in “Journal of Ardency,” it’s not one of those times.)
Harper’s sleepy attitutde, though, is pretty standard for the female vocalist in synth-pop. Sounding subdued and detached creates allure, which is really the engine that drives the image of a band like Class Actress. When Harper does this best, she doesn’t really sing so much as she oozes her vocals onto the track, thick and dripping and black and sweet-smelling. The best example of this is on the the EP’s eponymous (and best) track, during her “livin’ it/livin’ it/livin’ it up” in the post-chorus.
But elsewhere, her despondency goes too far and leaves the listener running behind, trying to catch up. Other pop singers who use understated vocals to big effect, like Annie and Sally Shapiro, do it with more dexterity because they’ve created on-record personas for themselves in which their distance takes on greater meaning. Harper has yet to do that, though to be fair she hasn’t had much time.
The two worse songs on the EP, “Adolescent Heart” and “Let Me Take You Out,” aren’t bad, but they definitely take up space that could be used for useful, if not vital, image-building. If Class Actress is going to be a sleek, chic, synth-pop act, then the musicians should take idea as far as it can go. Flirting with lighthearted teeny pop is only a dilution of that, and who would take a weak drink over a strong one?