ALBUM: Sylvan Esso
ARTIST: Sylvan Esso
When Amelia Meath asked Nick Sanborn to remix “Play It Right”, a Mountain Man original, Sanborn delivered so well that the two knew they needed to do more together. Holing up in Durham, NC to work on their debut, self-titled album, Sylvan Esso, the band ignited a partnership that yielded a moving and unique sound. Meath’s previous work with the predominantly a cappella folk trio, Mountain Man, showcased her spirited voice. Meath’s folk-driven vocals are at moments diaphanous and other times piercingly crisp. They lift firmly, blending into a peppy gauze and fall slowly, expanding in echoes. Working harmoniously and surprisingly well with Meath’s voice is Sanborn’s electronic production. Sanborn may be most recognized for his affiliation with North Carolina’s Megafaun, but under the moniker, Made of Oak, he has yoked a following with his production skills. Sanborn mixes and programs a variety of electronic sounds ranging from dubstep, electro-pop, and dance to create complementing stages for Meath’s delicate and dynamic voice.
The marriage of Meath’s voice and Sanborn’s production is a unique pairing that goes against the norm of typical electronic vocals. Often times, vocals in electronic music are muted or softened in order to evoke a human quality amidst the heavily artificial sounds. Other times, the singing works to match the charge of the sounds and, in correspondence, ends up possessing a robotic tone. Sometimes, the vocals have to be as aggressive and as pumped-up as the electronic sounds. In this collaboration, a sort of symbiotic competition occurs. In all cases, the voices adhere to a certain aesthetic and more importantly, the vocals tend to adhere to the electronic sounds. Vocals can be used to humanize the synthetic or they can be used as an additional system for simulation. Though electronic production provides (possibly, encourages) the space for vast modifications to vocals, Sanborn allows Meath’s voice to carry itself in the way it naturally arrives. On the flipside, Meath honors Sanborn’s production by finding the sweet spots to launch out from. What works for Sylvan Esso is their chemistry—a strong understanding of each other’s aesthetics and how to exploit them through their own faculties.
In footage of live performances, Sanborn resembles a co-pilot—rapidly flipping switches, turning knobs, scrolling quickly, and occasionally checking the view out the window, or in this case, checking for Meath’s nonverbal affirmations. Sanborn knows how to create the playgrounds for Meath’s singing. He often loops her voice to thicken and complicate the track. He pulls back when Meath’s voice needs to cover the foreground, reinforces an escalating beat when needed, and extends Meath’s voice with synthetic appendages at opportune moments. In addition, Sanborn occasionally contributes vocals. His taciturn, but anchoring support always adds a warm feel to the track. Curiously, though folk music tends to depend on lyrics to tell shared and binding narratives, Meath’s lyricism is more effective in its tonal athleticism. Each key, extension of a note, or modulation of a word—whatever the word—becomes a register of an emotion. The words then fall into the backdrop. This system of sounding off words for their emotional values complements the configurations of Sanborn’s own emotional swaying.
With such a pure, organic, and intuitive relationship, their process becomes transparent. One can deduce whether it was Sanborn’s production first or Meath’s words that inspired the direction of the track. This transparency further corroborates the instinctive alliance of seemingly incompatible genres. What should be listened for are not so much the surprises of a folk and electronic hybrid, but more so the deep communication between two seemingly disparate aesthetics. Though most tracks can’t compete with the memorability of the singles, “Coffee” and “Play It Right”, the album is consistently strong and has, as a bonus, flirtatious patches of danceable moments. Sylvan Esso is currently on the road, opening for tUnE-yArDs for most of their tour.
“Sylvan Esso acknowledges that the world is a tumult of complications by giving you a way to sing and dance with those troubles, if not to will them away together.”