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Sylvan Esso: a duo of unlikely grace and brilliant balance

April 6, 2018

Chris Ritter

Amelia Meath opened Sylvan Esso’s set at the Portland State Theater with a song about songs. “Sound,” the stripped-back opener of the duo’s 2017 album “What Now,” hears Meath at a near whisper, “All you’ll hear is sound, and / All you’ll feel is sound, and / All you’ll be is sound.” The lines aim to unify the natural and the artificial, as Meath sings note for note beside a lone synthesizer.

It’s a fitting intro for a group so deeply indebted to two vastly different styles of music. Sylvan Esso began as the odd couple project of Meath, a woodsy singer-songwriter of the Vermont folk trio Mountain Man, and Nick Sanborn, a glitchy synthpop producer who has performed solo as Made of Oak.

Most heard this collaboration for the first time with the single “Hey Mami,” a wry backhanded slap to catcallers that shows the potential of Meath and Sanborn’s combined talents. Meath showcases her versatility as a songwriter, combining folk-inflected chants with swooping harmonies. She even flexes a rap-like cadence to deliver the glaring lines, “Sooner or later the dudes at bodegas will hold their lips and own their shit.” But when Sanborn enters, the sound of Sylvan Esso is completed, turning the handclaps and harmonies into something more jarring: a sound where Meath’s folky charisma and Sanborn’s jaggedy EDM can exist on the same wavelength. They worked in that space for the first time on their 2014 eponymous album; the swelling synths of “Uncatena” and the gentle roll of “Coffee” provide fitting backdrops for Meath’s tales of endings, beginnings and rolling with the punches.

Meath focuses in on those moments on the duo’s 2017 album “What Now,” a sunnier album that sees the musical backgrounds of Meath and Sanborn inching closer together. Their sophomore release doesn’t stray far from the quirky blueprint of their debut. But after three years, “What Now” sounds like a new beginning for a band with new opportunities, not sinking into comfort but rising with exhilarating confidence. The itching refrain of “Just Dancing” urges us, “Let’s never stop, never stop, never stop starting,” while “The Glow” contains all the luster its title suggests, with Sanborn’s synths shimmering alongside a rush of acoustic guitars.

While “What Now” seems to fit into the boundaries of synthpop more so than “Sylvan Esso,” the duo thankfully hasn’t lost their interest in oddities. Meath weaves through a maze of synth hits on “Kick Jump Twist” before the song erupts into hecticity.

The album finale, “Rewind,” sounds just as infectious but stays more grounded, employing a decidedly anti-pop rumble of drums. In a telling quote, Meath told the Washington Post of the song, “Nick wanted me to write to those [drum hits] for a year and I thought they were total bulls—. And then I wrote that song and pasted those drums over it, and they worked.” The duo has a way of allowing their respective styles to fall in with each other. Sylvan Esso’s paradoxical charm gives their music intrigue, but the two are at their best when they take that paradox and make it look easy.

It isn’t simply ear candy, but the two are experts at showing how one sound bite can make a song blossom from the ground up. “It’s a signal in the noise / It’s a bell in a mine,” Meath airs out on the chorus of “Signal,” capturing the beauty of the song’s grainy vocal sample as it bursts into technicolor.

In its simplest sense, one might say the same line captures the story of Sylvan Esso, with Meath’s endearing melodies as the bell ringing through Sanborn’s explosive electronica. But the final product is more harmonious than that metaphor suggests, as Sylvan Esso is a rare duo that takes two ends of the sonic spectrum and lays them side by side, balancing genre more than blending it. The unique chemistry of Sylvan Esso shines on record, and it dazzles onstage.

Meath and Sanborn ended their set in Portland with “Play It Right,” another song about songs that casts aside their differences and celebrates what matters: seismic bass drops, textured production and soaring harmonies. As messy as finding middle ground can be, Sylvan Esso has achieved it with unlikely grace.

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