[15 May 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Sylvan Esso’s singer Amelia Meath cut her teeth and got the most recognition as part of the mostly a capella act Mountain Man, a group built on pastoral vocal harmonies. Her partner in the band, Nick Sanborn, has made electronic music as Made of Oak, but he also has his roots in folk as a member of Megafaun. The two played a bill together, Sanborn remixed a track of Meath, and Sylvan Esso was born.
And though you’d certain call Sylvan Esso, the duo’s first full record, an electro-pop album, there’s something uniquely different about it. There a lot of electro-pop that garners attention for its gossamer quality, for atmospheric elements and airy, haunting vocals. It’s music made by machines to produce sounds that seem like vapor, or at least that’s one line of logic. But Sylvan Esso isn’t like vapor at all. Maybe it’s the earthy ties to folk music that Meath and Sanborn share, but the success in their exciting debut comes in giving these catchy, blippy songs a serious muscle. The songs may be built on electronics, but they sound like blood and bone.
Meath and Sanborn tease atmospherics early on, as “Hey Mami” drifts in on tidal programmed sounds and Meath’s pristine voice. There’s a lot of space around her singing, harmonies layered under her recalling Mountain Man. But then the beat kicks in and Sanborn shifts the song on its axis, the straight forward pace becomes a skittering shuffle, warbling sounds puncture the sweetness of the track. And Meath stops pulling on words, stretching them sweetly, and rapid-fire sings about our “Mami”, letting her know about the “dudes in bodegas” as the title character walks quickly away. It’s a hooky but fascinating song, one that seems straightforward but shifts expectations as it moves. It sets up nicely the headier buzzing of “Dreamy Bruises”, the album’s first full-on dancefloor banger. The beat gets heavier, the synths and programming buzz harder, and Meath digs into each word, challenging us with a plainspoken power. “Kids move so slow,” she sings in chorus and the listener now feels like they need to keep up with the propulsive track.
The duo’s ability to give these electronic songs an elemental, earthen feel allows them the ability to stretch out into different layering, and the best songs on this album make electro-pop feel like some fresh new genre, like they built it just for these songs. “Dress” is perhaps the first truly Southern electronic song. It’s helpful that it’s a song about region, as Meath sings, “The good in the West, see how they pump those hands / The good in the South see how you use your mouth.” But there’s something swampy about the track, something about the melodies in the music that feel damp with the steam of August in the South. Meath’s voice is soft and melting here but deep, not honeyed but maybe a bit like molasses. There’s a similar mesh of the sweet with the rough on “Coffee”. This, one of the groups finest songs, presents itself as gentle, with a pared-back beat, a distant high buzz behind Meath’s voice, and chimes that punctuate each verse. The chorus too feels dreamy, oddly because Meath’s voice is pure and untreated, but as her singing glides through the chorus, it turns out to be a set up. The second verse turns from pared-back to lean, the distant buzz becomes a staccato skronk, and Meath digs into memories—“blazing summers, cold coffee / baby’s gone, do you love me?”—but hits each word with a definitive precision. This isn’t nostalgia, it’s confrontation with the past, and the song moves from dreamy to immediacy beautifully to drive that idea home.
Later in that song, Meath starts repeating, “My baby does the hanky-panky.” It’s not ironic or winking or even a true tip of the hat to old pop music. It sounds like a song that just drifted into Meath’s head in the moment, as if music in all its past and tradition is just flowing through Meath, through Sanborn, through Sylvan Esso. This understanding of music and its structures and traditions is what sets the duo apart. There may be the odd song, say “Uncatena”, that feels closer to boilerplate electro-pop, but it’s still got their signature energy to it. Sanborn’s music here never feels overcooked. It’s intricate but its effect feels almost Spartan in moments, and the sounds work with the silence around them rather than trying to fill it. It’s a perfect complement to Meath’s voice, which is rangy and strong throughout the record. Sylvan Esso would be an impressive statement for a long-established act, but considering it’s a first step for this duo, there may be no ceiling for an act that can rumble the dancefloor like this.