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Sylvan Esso - Sylvan Esso

"Sylvan Esso"

Release date: 26 May 2014
Sylvan esso album art
02 June 2014, 09:30 Written by Andrew Hannah
If you take a member of a cappella folk group Mountain Man and the bassist of Justin Vernon associates and not-afraid-of-a-beard Megafaun and let them start a group together, you’d be pretty sure of what the outcome would sound like, right? Wrong.

When Sylvan Esso dropped “Play It Right” last summer, Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn had, to some extent, confounded expectations. Rather than the expected folk music excursions what we had was a bass-heavy electronic track with wandering, skittering rhythms formed around Meath’s sweetly cooed vocals which still carried a precise snap from her work with Mountain Man. It recalled Dirty Projectors in its playful rhythmics, and there was a bit of Chvrches in there too, what with the whole beats-and-vocals thing going on. As Sanborn reverse-engineered the track at its conclusion you understood how Sylvan Esso could exist: stripping the beats and noise away bit by bit until Meath’s vocal was left unaccompanied, it was a folk song at its core. And of course that’s what it was: initially a Mountain Man track to be remixed by the Megafaun man, “Play It Right” became the starting point for the rest of the tracks on this charming debut, Sylvan Esso.

Sylvan Esso don’t deviate too far from that template across the rest of the songs on this debut, but then there’s little reason for them to bother. The best track by a country mile is the addictive “Coffee”; the burbling synths and just-off-the-beat percussion work perfectly against Meath’s saucily slurred delivery, and it is of course the best song to date about caffeine, dancing and sex. Also excellent is the fiery thump of “H.S.K.T”, a track that’s all pattern and movement, all flailing arms and legs on the dancefloor, and closing track “Come Down” is the track that most lays bare the folk roots of both members, made up as it is of little else other than layered harmonies and gentle electronic flutters.

Often, delivery seems to matter more than what Meath is actually singing about on these songs; there’s a comparison to be made with the new record from Hundred Waters, kindred spirits in the way they make this organic-synthetic mix. That band has spoken of how the “lyrics” don’t particularly matter as a separate entity - what’s more important is how they come together with the music for a cohesive whole. And it’s the same for Sylvan Esso: Meath’s wordless flights of fancy become another melody, the way she repeats the title on the hiccuping “Could I Be” transforms her words into a percussive catch. With Mountain Man, Meath had a clear, open-throated tone that made you feel like she was speaking her lyrics straight into your ear; it was intimate and welcoming, yet it was weighted with history and tales of Appalachia. On Sylvan Esso it’s still intimate – these songs drip with a modern sexuality – but there’s an openness that comes from relaxing out of the trad singing patterns and letting Sanborn play with Meath’s vocals.

For an artist to have created something new and rather exciting in what was fast becoming a stagnant and over-populated genre is an achievement, but it’s one Sylvan Esso has managed with consummate ease. This is a seductive and beguiling record.

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