E.S.L. is a group of four women from Vancouver, and their album Eye Contact is a wide-ranging collection of songs that takes full advantage of their unusual line-up of piano, cello, violin, and drums. Marta Jaciubek-McKeever is the lead singer and piano player, and her breathy, emotional voice is a good fit for the material. With the wealth of piano players and strings in pop and indie music over the past decade, E.S.L. doesn’t sound particularly exotic, but this is a nicely arranged album that dabbles in dark pop, love ballads, interesting covers, and forays into jazz and blues.
“Prove Me Wrong” is a swing tune, an angry minor-key song from the standpoint of a jealous lover. It features muted trumpets, lots of sound effects from cellist Cris Derksen and violin player Dionna Davies, and a nice jazzy drum solo from Joy Mullen. Later on, “Walk With Me” delivers a bluesy lounge ballad driven by Jaciubek-McKeever’s piano and accentuated with what sounds like improvisation from Davies on the violin. The swirling instrumental “Princess Vs. Dragon” is constructed similarly to a classical music rondo, with recurring A and B themes at the beginning and end, and an extended C section in the middle.
On the poppier side of things, there’s album-opener “Secretariat”, which finds Jaciubek-McKeever comparing the love of her life to the famous racehorse over a pulsing dark piano riff and brief violin cadenzas from Davies. “I Don’t Buy It” uses softly plucked violin and cello, as well as some subtle vibraphone, in the slow-paced verses while accelerating and upping the volume in the full-bodied chorus. By the time the song hits the four-minute mark, the band is going all-out in an Arcade Fire-style orchestral climax. It’s an impressive moment, made all the more impressive by the fact that it’s the only time E.S.L. attempts it on the album. It really works, and the band shows admirable restraint by not trying to go for that huge moment repeatedly.
“Side by Side” and “Like a Hurricane” are the album’s two slow love songs. It’s here that Jaciubek-McKeever’s voice really shows its power. The former song is filled with an aching longing, as Jaciubek-McKeever sings in first-person from the perspective of a broken, emotionally wrecked woman who realizes that her lover is the only person who sees she still has something left inside. And then she turns it around at the end of the song by revealing it was her lover who broke her in the first place. “Like a Hurricane” is a Neil Young cover, cast here as a slow-paced duet between Jaciubek-McKeever and Duffy Driedger of Ladyhawk, and heavily featuring the band’s string section.
The album wraps with another trio of covers, starting with the Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs”. Probably not a great choice, but E.S.L.‘s instrumentation and the addition of a French horn makes it an interesting listen. This one is also presented as a duet, with a guest male vocalist simply listed as the Dark. The band has more luck with “Czarne Oczy”, a traditional Polish medley sung in the original language by the Polish-born Jaciubek-McKeever and her father Irek Jaciubek. It’s a bouncy song and it sounds like everyone involved is having fun performing it. The album ends on a goofy note as cellist Cris Derksen steps up to the microphone to sing the Beastie Boys’ “Girls.”
There is a lot of variety on Eye Contact, and E.S.L. makes almost everything work. It’s nice to hear the violin and cello integrated so well as full-time instruments in what’s essentially a pop band. “I Don’t Buy It” and “Side By Side” are the real standout tracks here, but there isn’t a bad song on the album.