Sounds & Images
There are bands that arrive fully formed with a fresh sound satisfying a need listeners didn’t even know they had—and then you have an act like Sylvan Esso, who fill an obvious void. The Durham, NC duo’s fusion of quirky folk and quirky electro-pop would have otherwise been inevitably and awkwardly willed into existence, since those are two of the most reliable, likeable, and syncable subgenres that fall under the “indie” umbrella. It’s a good starting point for Sylvan Esso, but it’s their endgame as well.
All the same, there is a guileless charm to the whole project and without it, there’s no way opener “Hey Mami” would be remotely tolerable. As Amelia Meath neatly manicures her syllables while singing, “Sooner or later/ The dudes at bodegas/ Will hold their lips and own this shit,” Rob Thomas’ Mona Lisa is strutting through Spanish Harlem. Maybe the urbane playfulness is a stilted attempt to compensate for Sylvan Esso’s background in antiquated and Appalachian music: Meath is a member of Vermont au naturel vocal group Mountain Man and part of Feist’s touring band, while Nick Sanborn plays bass in Megafaun, often contrasted with Bon Iver as the woolier, weirder offshoot of DeYarmond Edison. Fortunately, “Hey Mami” succeeds in being a folk song in an ethnomusical sense, a document of a real life situation. Meath’s looped vocals lend a languid, sun-weary, and slightly drunk quality, and it’s the ambient street noise rather than Sanborn’s protruding bass and skittering beats that evokes the scene they’re trying to relate. The same sense of place is crucial to “Coffee”, where Meath sings about the freedom of dancing as a participant, rather than an observer.
Most of Sylvan Esso’s points of comparison are contemporary and complimentary, but it’s easiest to draw a straight bloodline to Dirty Projectors’ indie R&B O.G. “Stillness is the Move”, as Sylvan Esso’s sounds are thin and gawky, while dealing with small, tangible situations. Meath’s lyrics carry streak of homesickness and displacement, but it’s nothing existential or incomprehensible; judging from “Could I Be”, it’s just a matter of being on the road, because it’s there you’ll meet people like the carnivorous charmer who’s the subject of “Wolf”, saddled with obvious Zevon allusions and obvious metaphor (“But no birds or beasts does he eat/ he only wants the tenderest meat”). You can subsequently hear the chorus of “H.S.K.T.” (“Head, shoulders, knees and toes”) as a calming inventory to stay in the present moment while surrounded by the constant chatter of people, beeping cellphones, and televisions.
Unlike most of their sleeker, sizeable peers, Sylvan Esso is by and for portable electronic devices. Sanborn’s beats are a collection of “sound effects” rather than cohesive production or ambience—buzzing bazz, vacuums of synths, and the rest sounding like a shareware version of TNGHT. If Sylvan Esso sounds like rudimentary remixes of what could otherwise be casual and agreeable Mountain Man or Feist songs, well, that’s exactly how Sylvan Esso got started—Meath asked Sanborn, working under the rustic electro alias Made of Oak, to reconfigure Mountain Man’s “Play it Right” (included as the penultimate track here) and it grew into a full-fledged partnership.
While it’s easy to view Sylvan Esso as longtime side musicians taking the lead, there’s a disappointing retreat towards inoffensive lap-pop after “Hey Mami” and “Dreamy Bruises” boldly announce their intentions. Once you get a grasp of what it is Sylvan Esso do, Sanborn’s production somehow manages to be both repetitive and unfocused, while Meath’s chants start to blend into an indistinct schoolyard chatter, percussive sibilance over melody; “Hey Mami” is by a large margin the most grating song here, and it’s the one that seems to stick. Sylvan Esso may represent a declaration of freedom and artistic renewal, but it doesn’t necessarily result in memorable songs.
Still, like raw milk, I can’t shake that the lack of homogenization, the small-batch “organic” presentation of Sylvan Esso, is the main draw. Sure, bands like Hundred Waters and tUnE-yArDs emulsify indigenous music into coherent and unique artistic statements—electronic pop just as suitable for Coachella as it is for Coffee Bean—but their evolutions don’t serve as a narrative, a statement about an audience writ large: namely, that R&B, pure pop, and such should be considered a kind of folk music for people who’ve grown up in the 21st century, and hey, isn’t it great that can exist side-by-side? In that sense, Sylvan Esso is feel-good music on all fronts, and when it comes time to throw on something at a summer gathering that’ll make people feel slightly hipper than they were when they arrived, Sylvan Esso will be a go-to. But it’ll still feel like I’m living in a beer commercial, someone else’s idea of an inclusive, hip summer day.