Cyan, the new album by San Francisco’s the Seshen ties many threads together. A contemporary soul sound with an indie-pop feel. Singer/songwriter sincerity with imaginative electropop flourishes. Dancefloor-friendly rhythms with subtle touches that are a little new wave and a little progressive rock. The common bonds to all of this are the versatile vocals and questioning lyrics of vocalist Lalin St. Juste.
St. Juste sounds very much like herself throughout Cyan – “unapologetically black, unapologetically queer, unapologetically a woman”, according to the album’s press release. Along the way, her vocals might momentarily call to mind everyone from Erykah Badu to Twin Peaks chanteuse Julee Cruise (the latter on the “I can hear the mountains falling” line in “Faster Than Before”). The band is equally eclectic, with the electronics of keyboard/synth player Mahesh Rao and sequencer Kumar Butler meshing well with the sounds of drummer Chris Thalmann, producer-bassist Akiyoshi Ehara, and percussionist Mirza Kopelman. The resulting electronic/organic mix works well, providing a continuously intriguing backdrop for St. Juste’s vocals.
There are probably countless influences to be detected throughout Cyan, depending on a listener’s own set of reference points. For example, “Head to Head” feels like a vintage Donna Summer song, but with a synth solo that would sound comfortable on a mid-1980s Rush album. At the same time, though the Seshen sound fully 21st century, sort of in the same ballpark with their contemporaries in the Los Angeles band, the Internet. There are differences, of course – The Internet features guitar and a more overt hip-hop influence than the Seshen – but the bands’ differences complement each other nicely.
Early on Cyan, St. Juste’s lyrics make several allusions to restlessness and sleep, particularly on “4AM”, “Still Dreaming”, and “Close Your Eyes”, in which St. Juste wonders if we “can leave a moment to chance”, even as we are struggling to get our acts together.
Everything falls together on “Dive”, the 10th of the album’s 12 tracks. Over an addictive beat and music that becomes ever more complex as the song progresses, St. Juste seems to fully awaken from the restless sleep she described in the earlier tracks. “Maybe it’s time, maybe the moment’s ripe to open my eyes, I want some light,” she sings. An expression of self-doubt ensues. “Don’t know if I can open the door / Don’t know if I can open up my eyes / Don’t know if I can open up my mind, I don’t know.” That is followed by a trippy passage culminating in a backward vocal bit that sounds a bit like the Man from Another Place (another Twin Peaks moment!) before the music momentarily stops and St. Juste murmurs “OK”.
From there, the music and some wordless vocals carry the song out, because nothing else needs to be said, but the whole album feels like it hinges on that “OK”. It’s the moment when St. Juste embraces the chaos – musical and otherwise – swirling around her and quietly but confidently declares that she can deal with it. That simple “OK” might have been improvised or might have been deliberate, but either way, it feels like the center of emotional gravity on Cyan.
Following “Dive”, the Seshen brings Cyan to a close with two evocative ballads, “Stones” and “Wander”, which seem to document the changes that resulted from waking up and facing down doubt in the deep “Dive”. “Wander”, at just over two minutes long, brings Cyan to a mysterious, though oddly fitting conclusion, as St. Juste determines that she’ll be content to wander even if she’s not entirely certain what everything means. Perhaps she will share her conclusions on the next album by the Seshen.