Sylvan Esso - Sylvan Esso

A folk singer and an electronic producer partner up to create an absorbing and distinctive sound.

Additional Info

8.7

ALBUM: Sylvan Esso

ARTIST: Sylvan Esso

2014

Alternative

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.”

1. Hey Mami
Meath’s voice is looped to build the crux of the track. She sings over the loops, modulating the speed of the track. Sanborn comes in to cut the track with a deep, wobbling bass. Meath’s staccato voice swiftly levels the track beautifully.9.0
2. Dreamy Bruises
This track begins with the beats upfront. It’s a bouncy, forbidding thumping. When Meath’s voice enters, it’s filtered through an effect. It’s unexpected and a little off-putting. However, when Meath comes in with the chorus, the track jolts into a suave, melodic flow. Sanborn’s subtle backing vocals peel nicely. The talky, affected beginning makes this track seem divergent from the rest of the album, but when the looped elements of the track meet, the track achieves a rich flux.8.0
3. Could I Be
Meath’s singing calls out, holding notes for longer periods. Sanborn shifts the track at unexpected moments by replacing elements with asynchronous sounds, creating a wide spectrum within this track.8.5
4. Wolf
Meath’s voice leads this track. You can hear Sanborn’s tempo is fitted to Meath’s vocals. The soft howling with a steady pumping beat is the sweet spot of this track.8.5
5. Dress
Starting heavy, the song shifts into a tranquil, detached melody. Punctuated by the bass and Meath’s looped fragmented voice, the song has a both minimalistic and full-bodied sound.8.0
6. H.S.K.T.
The high-hat and hollowed drumbeat harkens back to old-school dubstep. Meath’s voice and Sanborn’s restraint modernize this track. This track is another slightly divergent move from the other tracks, but it shows Meath and Sanborn’s affinity for programmed beats. “H.S.K.T.” is both nostalgic and fresh.8.5
7. Coffee
One of the strongest tracks of the album. It’s ephemeral, emotive, and danceable. The melodic build-up is gutturally satisfying when it reaches the chorus. 10.0
8. Uncatena
Sanborn leads this track with a stepping progression. Meath’s fluid vocals create a melancholic tone that contrasts vividly with the forward-moving beats. The track escalates, sharpening its own blade. The persistent beat, though a little overworked, works wells with Meath’s misty voice.8.5
9. Play It Right
The track that, so to say, started it all. Sanborn’s drop helps stretch Meath’s voice into a landing strip. It’s a spacious, heavy, danceable track.10.0
10. Come Down
Meath’s vocal abilities are placed in the front while Sanborn leaves his fingerprint on the track with loosely stringed static and ambient sound bytes. Ending with the most stripped track that’s a nod to Meath’s a cappella days and also, tonally, a sort of goodbye may be a cute move, but it’s a fitting end to the album. It’s a peaceful ending that just makes you want to circle back to the beginning of the album so you can indulge again in the disturbances.8.0
Denver transplant Jenifer Park roll tides at the University of Alabama for her MFA in poetry.



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