There are very few new albums in 2014 that have struck me song by song. The War On Drugs’ Lost In The Dream and Porches’ Lost In The Cosmos are two of those. It pleases me to say that I have found a third. Sylvan Esso, comprised of former acapella-folk singer Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn, former bass player for Megafaun, merged together as solo artists to create a work of art. Sanborn brings the vision of an electronic music producer to the front, and Meath works her wide range of crafty vocals.
The first track, “Hey Mami,” introduces us to the soundscape of walking in a city. Meath slowly builds on the phrase ‘hey mami’ into an arpeggio, as thick drops of bass plop in while the chorus repeats. Meath’s voice is remniscent of the quality of Feist’s–smooth, elegant, and raw. This song is the feeling of being a woman on the street–it’s a rendition of a cat call. The electronics can be likened to headphones, drowning out the ‘look at that ass’ and ‘smile girl’ that are shouted at an attractive passerby. Bikes whirring fade out the opening stunner.
“Dreamy Bruises” heralds with a clock ticking as percussion and intense synth flogging the introduction. The beat is at a forward ebb but the lyrics are pulling back in tone, for instance “black eyes turn to marigolds in the night” and “how can we question / what we know feels right.” The lyrical push/pull quality is seen on multiple tracks in the album. “Wolf” is about a womanizer, sung in a sexy, playful way. It begins with an innocent beat, a soft, sensual build. The chorus is a dim howl with acoustic strums layered over the bass. You can picture this guy–“the modern wolf, he’s kinder,” and “he only wants the tenderest meat.” This feels like a parallel to “Hey Mami,” a role reversal, a close up study of the objectifying male.
Melodically, Sylvan Esso pulls out some tricks out of their instruments. “HSKT” standing for ‘heads, shoulders, knees, toes,’ takes industrial noises, such as a tin can and a beeping of a phone to indicate the obsession our culture has with screens and ‘staying connected.’ Meath sings, “I got a television / it’s filling me with home” and “I got a phone it makes me know I’m not alone.” “HSKT” has the hottest four-on-the-floor banger quality to all of the songs. It’s a “Simon Says” throwback. We stand in circles copying each other and moving within the flow. “Could I Be” uses a phrase several different ways to give the song a deep structure. Meath’s vocals are overlapped, like in “Hey Mami,” but this time the phrase “could I be comin’ home with the waves running” is rolled. At one point she barely whispers the phrase, and at another it is put through a voice changer, and finally it is repeated to have the effect of another instrument
The single on the album, “Coffee,” is the most well-known of Sylvan Esso’s songs so far, but probably not the best on the album. Harmonic trills and strums of synth open the frontier. Subtle bells cling, signalling transitions. The mood is nostalgic, “wild winters, warm coffee / mom’s gone, do you love me.” Sanborn makes his only debut in the vocal area, mirroring “rock me in your arms.” “Uncatena” follows suit in the same vein with the reflective, internal quality, retelling a narrative story about a failed romance at an island located in Martha’s Vineyard.
What is the most successful aspect of this album is the last song, “Come Down.” It’s a stark difference, featuring very little electronic noises, only the soft buzz of a television or a light that has been left on. Meath sings, “Hey mama won’t you come down, to the river, to eat, to be.” It is slow and poignant, leaving an intense emotional residue after the wilder songs before. The character in the song is washing her mothers hair, telling her, “you wash my hair for years, years” and “there’s a man, I think he loves me so, finally.”