Artist: Sylvan Esso
Album: Sylvan Esso
In Brief: It’s amazing what two people can accomplish with little more than a voice, some synths and drum pads, and a bit of ingenuity when it comes to live looping. Not every experiment works, but when it does, it’s an intoxicating example of synthpop/IDM at its best.
“Imagine if Feist was lead singer for Chvrches.” I think that would be my one-line pitch if I had to describe the music of Sylvan Esso in a nutshell. Like any “X meets Y” artist comparison, it has its limits, but it’s a good place to start. You’ve singer Amelia Meath, who cut her teeth on old-timey folk music in the confusingly named all-female vocal group Mountain Man, with a voice that has the sort of playful clarity of someone like Feist. And then you’ve got producer Nick Sanborn, who seems like the kind of guy who would be more content to set up shop with his vintage synth pads on a street corner and just see whose attention he can grab as they’re walking by than to try and recruit members for an actual band – the M.O. is similar to Chvrches’ mantra of “keeping it unreal”, and yet there’s a certain minimalism to his approach that sets him apart from a lot of his contemporaries in the electronica department. I love it when musicians from completely different realms can come together and make something unique like this, that crackles with creative energy.
Sylvan Esso’s debut album, released in 2014, just recently caught my attention, and they’ve got the kind of sound that was easy for me to fall in love with at first listen, even if some aspects of it were surprising or even off-putting at first. They’re not afraid to work in lower-fidelity samples of found sounds that could have easily been recorded off the street, and they’re also not afraid to push the sound of a synthesizer or sample out to the edges of what might be enjoyable to the conventional ear. Those extremes only crop up on a few tracks, and they’re certainly worth warning you about if you like to listen to music on super-deluxe speakers with the bass cranked up really high, but they don’t permeate the entire record. Sanborn’s got a gift for syncopation that can make a few of these songs feel like they’ve got two conflicting rhythms playing at once, but now that I’ve got the hang of it, I really enjoy this aspect of their sound.
I’d describe Meath’s vocals as pleasant throughout, though she’s not afraid to comment on the topics of gender and sexuality. These can add a strangely sensual tone to a few of SE’s songs, though it’s never for shock value – she just sounds like she’s weighing the pros and cons of how men and women treat each other in her head as she’s singing each line. A few mild profanities might slip out in the process, but overall there’s nothing controversial about any of these songs. (Plus sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and I might be reading a sexual meaning into a song that isn’t there.)
Where Sylvan Esso slips up the most tends to be on the slower songs – the first few of them are intoxicating, but as the record’s second half rolls around, it starts to get bogged down with a few half-baked ideas that don’t really translate into songs that are nearly as engaging as the bangers they put up front. That’s not say this duo has to be upbeat in order to be worth listening to; they’re just working out a few kinks in the more atmospheric/ambient side of their sound. At only 10 tracks, nothing really sticks around long enough to become truly tedious, but there are a few songs that I wish had more of an assertive identity. I suppose that’s to be expected for two people whose individual musical identities are so radically different, but hopefully those two sides will gel in more of a cohesive manner on future releases.
1. Hey Mami
Now if I hadn’t told you anything about Sylvan Esso’s musical style, you’d probably expect something Suzanne Vega-esque from the initial setup of this song. The ambient street noise and Amelia’s refrain of “Hey mami, I know what you want, mami” looping back on itself as she stacks on a few layers of harmony seem like the kind of thing that could sustain itself without any instrumentation. Then Nick drops the beat about a minute in and suddenly synths are bumping and buzzing all over the place with a stiff robotic rhythm that seems purposefully at odds with the easygoing sway of Amelia’s melody. You know how rappers will drop triplets into a song that is otherwise in 4/4, just to show off some tongue-twisting lyrics? Amelia sort of does that here – singing instead of rapping of course, but it’s a similar concept. “Sooner or later, the dudes in bodega will hold their lips and own this sh*t”. I love the way that just rolls off the tongue. Of course, she’s singing about what it’s like for a woman to be catcalled as she walks down the street, and what’s interesting about this from her perspective is that it’s both intimidating and empowering. She could have easily written a didactic song that basically said, “Guys, never ever do this”, and I’d pretty much have agreed with her on that, but there’s a part of her that seems willing to take the compliments being offered even if the method is crude. You could read this song a lot of different ways based on your own personal experience, and I like that she kind of leaves it open-ended.
2. Dreamy Bruises
The second song cranks up the tempo a good deal, with its hyperactive synth melody hitting every sixteenth note, its frenetic pace only cooled off slightly by the more chilled-out approach of the percussion in the chorus. This is a great example of how you can generate an entire song from a laptop and still have it feel lively instead of clinical. You can feel the kinetic energy of the room full of sweaty dudes all mindlessly banging into each other than Amelia is apparently singing about – she promises in her explanation of the song that it’s not meant to be homoerotic, just an observation of what happens when things get rowdy on the dancefloor, the guys move inwards and the girls get the hell out of the way. It could be social commentary or just plain goofy fun. Either way, it’s incredibly addictive.
3. Could I Be
While “Hey Mami” is by far the most distinctive thing on the album, this slinky, syncopated number gives it a run for its money in the earworm department – I still haven’t made up my mind which of the two tracks is my favorite on the entire album. Amelia’s got one of those vocal hooks that runs breathlessly up and down the scale – it’s more quirky indie pop than powerhouse dance pop, mostly staccato syllables and unfussy folk singer charm, but then it’s being layered and otherwise manipulated, as if the song were trying to separate out the most human and most robotic elements of her voice in a centrifuge. Then a few minutes in, Nick drops these deep, almost unsettling bass notes that are jarring for both how low-pitched they are and how deliberately they grate against the natural rhythm of the song. They come in like the sonic equivalent of a Sherman tank rolling over everything. I did not like this at first, but now it’s one of my favorite parts of the song. The lyrics have got plenty of attitude as well – it’s supposedly a song about the endless cycle of being on tour, traveling to show after show and leaving everything you’ve got out there on stage and how exhausting that can get. But I can’t help but feel like there’s something more sinister in play when Amelia remarks, “Oh, why did I go outside with the bitches on the trail?”, and then in the main chorus hook, “Get on the train, get on the train and ride it ’til you come.” If that’s not a double entendre, then I don’t know what is.
One of the more chilled-out songs on the record scales back the synths and beats a bit, letting them trickle in more sparsely but still giving the song a sense of strong melody and momentum. Amelia is cooing sweetly about a “modern wolf” who is basically on the hunt for nothing but carnal interests, and unlike the Mad Men archetypes of old, he’s a very casually dressed and sensitive-sounding type of guy, so an unsuspecting woman doesn’t even know she’s intended to be nothing more than a notch on his belt until it’s too late. As in “Hey Mami”, you’d expect this to be a simple but effective bit of feminist commentary if you took it at face value, but the real kicker is that Amelia gender-flipped a situation in her own life, where she was the predator and men were the prey. A good songwriter understands how to get into the heads of someone other than themselves and write about how the details of life look from that unfamiliar perspective. I think we’ve got one in our midst here. I like how the chorus is just simply her moaning “Aah-ooooh”, which almost reminds me of a wolf howling at the moon, except I’d hate to imply that she sings like a dog, and… you know what, let’s just move on before I say something even stupider.
Part of the strange allure of Sylvan Esso’s music is that they have songs like this where I’m not sure if they’re better classified as bangers or ballads. The lyrics can be very descriptive, emotionally charged, even intimate, and the beats will often be on the heavier side, yet they won’t always reach a full gallop – in this case, throughout most of the song, they rattle and vibrate like a cell phone left sitting on a desk, causing ripples on the surface of a glass of water left nearby. This is a song of self-seduction, if I understand Amelia’s words correctly – and get your mind out of the gutter, it’s not that kind of self-love. It’s simply about a woman putting on a dress, checking herself out in the mirror, busting some moves, and telling herself she looks damn good. She describes the parts of her body like they were the cardinal directions on a map: “You look good in the west/See how you clap those hands/You look good in the south/See how you use your mouth/You look good in the east/All elbows and knees.” It’s sort of silly, but there’s a nursery rhyme sort of quality to it that makes it quite charming.
Hey, speaking of songs you’d sing in nursery school, does anyone remember “Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes”? This is not that song, but it definitely plays off of our memory of it as it names those same body parts in that same order, doing its darndest to make us engage all of those body parts in time to its slick dance groove. This is probably the most straightforward “banger” of the bunch – the synth notes ping-pong back and forth in a playful manner to offset Amelia’s vocals, and Nick’s working that hi-hat sound to give it a Euro/techno sort of flavor. Interestingly, this is where Amelia’s vocals sound their most “Feist-y” – I’m thinking back to the fun groove of “Sealion” and wondering if someone out there in the universe would be so kind as to gift us with a mash-up.
Things get more relaxed and esoteric for the next two tracks, and while this particular track is one of SE’s big singles, it’s been a much harder one for me to get into. I figured a song about coffee would be a surefire favorite, but the title may be a misdirect, because as far as I can tell, the temperature of the coffee Amelia prefers to drink seems to be merely a marker for the passage of time – iced coffee in the summertime, hot coffee in the winter, different lovers coming and going as the months pass by. It’s an interesting reflection that is slightly marred by the ridiculous lyric “My baby does the hanky-panky” that repeats several times as the song gets caught in a trancelike loop. The main thing that was hard for me to like about the song was how the band is once again playing triple meter and common time against each other – the synths and the beats are constantly at odds in this weird polyrhythmic dance, making it difficult to know which one I’m supposed to focus on, and I’m sure that’s the intent, so I don’t mean to say that this was a mistake. It’s a very unique groove that shows more musical complexity than you might get out of a lot of synthpop-type artists, so I can see why a lot of people like it. (It’s also the only song where Nick provides backing vocals, for whatever that’s worth, though they’re pretty subtle and only come in near the end.) Ultimately I just think the rhythmic weirdness is more memorable than either the melody or the lyrics of the song.
On an album where my first impressions of most of the songs will be based on how addictive their rhythms are, this song comes in second to last, and that’s only because there’s a song coming up that has no rhythm at all. There’s something about the mid-tempo crunch of the beat here that just seems uninspired and a bit tedious – it’s not a terribly slow song and there’s some interesting syncopation going on as usual, but overall the song feels a bit aimless. Good luck trying to discern what’s going on with the weird water metaphors in the verses and the extremely vague chorus – “Did you ever say? Oh, no.” It’s asking an incomplete question and then answering it in a rather indifferent manner. The only clear meaning comes forth at the end of the song when Amelia quotes verbatim a voice message that an ex-boyfriend left her: “All I want from you’s a letter/And to be your distant lover/That is all that I can offer at this time.” It’s a rather weak coda for the song, since her melody doesn’t stick the landing at all, so it’s a bit embarrassing that she repeats it in the hopes of making it a memorable hook. I’m just not feeling this one. It seems too much like a work in progress.
9. Play It Right
A simple song about the joy of making music, of finding that connection between artist and audience, was actually the genesis of Sylvan Esso. It was first recorded by Mountain Man as an acapella song, which is a beautiful thing worth listening to in its own right, because the song’s got the kind of urgency to it that suggests a rhythm even with no percussion present. It seemed like a natural enough pick for a remix, which is what Amelia sought Nick out for, and he did a bang-up job, dropping in some huge, metallic, reverberating beats and wonderfully warm synth tones, adding a dazzling array of colors to what was already a lovingly crafted pencil sketch of a song. It’s interesting that it ended up so far back in the track listing – I’d have put something like this up front, personally. But then the front half of this record is pretty solid to begin with, and the back half needed a jolt of energy at this point, so I really can’t complain.
10. Come Down
And this is how you do not remix an acapella song. This recording feels like one of those raw moments when Amelia was caught singing to herself in the bathroom mirror, being unwittingly recorded on some lo-fi device or something, and that’s not a bad idea in and of itself – it’s got the kind of homespun charm that might have fit in well on a folk or acapella record like the kind her previous band would make. Unfortunately Nick’s idea of bringing it into the electrified world of Sylvan Esso only constitutes of adding an annoying electric buzz to the background – like there’s an overworked hard drive spinning or a speaker with a loose cable or something. It’s not an attractive sound, and having it be so prominent in the mix just makes it feel like faux-artsy wankery. While this is the shortest song on the album at just under three minutes (really just over two, if you don’t count the 45 seconds or so of nothing but that buzzing at the end), it feels like the longest because it takes me roughly ten seconds to get impatient with it. Such a strong album really deserved a more climactic ending, I think.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Hey Mami $2
Dreamy Bruises $1.75
Could I Be $2
Play It Right $1.75
Come Down –$.25
Amelia Meath: Lead vocals
Nick Sanborn: Production, sampling, backing vocals
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