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May 19, 2014

Sylvan Esso


Sylvan Esso

"Blazing summer, cold coffee; mom's gone, do you love me?"

Alright, I'll admit it: on more than one occasion, I've looked at the last page of a book before I've even begun to get into the swing of reading it. I'm all for a good conclusion. However, the habit has never carried over to music; I'm compelled to follow the sonic trail of every record towards a final track that I, in fact, built up to some pretty high standards in my head.Tom Waits and Titus Andronicus always score points on this scale: your final track should have a sense of, well, finality. You've spent nearly an hour throwing around a lot of ideas, so it's pleasant when you address them all at their core by journey's end. Yes, I know that not all albums are sequenced with thematic progression in mind, making it all the more pleasant to find this conclusiveness where it's available, and all the more exciting when you don't entirely expect it. Sylvan Esso brings you to a lot of different places, but they're aware of this adventure to the point that its conclusion is just the cherry on top.
The final track on Sylvan Esso's self titled debut is a tender minimalist ballad called 'Come Down'. En musical route, the minimalism has been creeping in here and there, as have the harmonies. However, these 45 minutes were also punctuated by louder synths, faster vocals, and the rapid, tenuous clicks and purrs of machines, only represented in echoes here. 'Come Down' calmly beckons you to join vocalist Amelia Meath at a scene of comfort painted by her words of a "river so deep". The particular pace it takes on isn't unexpected; it's a new look for a familiar vibe, a look of both relaxation and exhaustion. After all, it comes on the heels of arguably the danciest, most vibrant number on the album: 'Play it Right'. All that dancing would tire me out too.
The pace of this last track may feel familiar on a much larger scale for its writers: both Meath and instrumentalist Nick Sanborn were more accustomed to folk-tinged tunes when their own journey together began. The catalyst for the journey was a remix that Sanborn produced of a track by Meath's three-piece, harmony-heavy folk outfit Mountain Man; the track in question being 'Play It Right'. The musical chemistry was instant, and the two formed Sylvan Esso, a new vessel into which they could channel this near-palpable potential energy.
The energy is still very evident around two years later when their resulting record was ready for release. Infectious grooves are in full force on tracks like 'H.S.K.T.', 'Could I Be', and 'Dress'. Lead single 'Coffee' takes a more subtle approach to making you move. It's a slow burner with piercing electronic highs and intimate rockabilly-quoting lows. This track puts on full display the well-curated dynamic scale that you may be taking for granted on the rest of the record. So dynamic is the journey that, while there's no explicit narrative throughout, the album is fleshed out with personality and aplomb. I can't help but chalk that up to the great folk tradition colliding with the world of electronics: the album's greatness owes its fair share to the former's conciseness in the face of the latter's propensity for nine-minute loops, the latter's precision in the face of the former's vice of monotony. Their collision is wont to blend in to a recent trend of female vocalists complimenting laptop acts, but it takes only a brief inspection to see that what's going on behind the gears of Sylvan Esso is deeply rooted.
There's a school of thought in juxtaposition to the one that makes me peek at the last page, one that I'm more prone to as I get older: reaching the end and looking back at the beginning. The album "Sylvan Esso" allows the final track to conclude a diverse yet cohesive album with a sense of calm and self-awareness of the journey it's taken its listeners on. The band Sylvan Esso was able to make such an album with the technique and ambition that had been imbued in them by the musical place at which they began: what was meant to be a one-off remix and become much more. The last page is a great vantage point from which to view the first, and one can only hope that for Sylvan Esso, this the last page of but the first chapter in what is sure to be a phenomenal story.
Ross Koeberl