Music Reviews
Sylvan Esso

Sylvan Esso Sylvan Esso

(Partisan Records) Rating - 8/10

Crocodiles don’t have dental floss, and with all their meaty meals, even one of the animal kingdom’s most invincible predators is susceptible to nasty toothaches.  That’s why it developed a relationship with the Egyptian plover bird, which will sit inside the beast’s mouth and munch on troublesome bits of leftovers.  The crocodile gets a nice cleaning, and the plover enjoys a safe snack within an overtly intimidating set of incisors.  Such is an example of mutualistic symbiosis, where two distinctly different beings realize that they’re more successful together than alone.

In the musical realm, Durham, North Carolina-based Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn have developed a promising mutualism of their own.  Previously the primary fixture in female folk trio Mountain Man, Meath is an experienced songwriter with a knack for intricate vocal harmony.  Sanborn is a one-time composition major and apt instrumentalist (as bassist for Megafaun and others) who sowed his wild auditory oats with a solo electronic project titled Made of Oak.  Chance brought them together for a show, and one remixed Mountain Man track later, the duo of Sylvan Esso was born.

Precisely 18 seconds of that proto-track, Play it Right, are required to realize that their collaboration is intensely synergistic.  Meath’s vocal texture and autoharmonies form a 16-second initial impression, Sanborn shatters it at :17, and then the goosebumps arrive.  The combined sound is jubilant, organic, and skillfully crafted with a spectral breadth neither musician could deliver separately.  Lighter and friendlier than Purity Ring, more pensive than Chvrches, and more eclectic than Phantogram, Sylvan Esso occupies a newly essential niche in the seemingly-crowded arena of female-fronted indie-electronic outfits.

Nowhere are these distinctive strengths more apparent than on album standout Coffee.  Amid a series of distorted melodic intervals, bass drum beats, mechanical chinks and accenting chimes lies an enchanting ode to the spins and dips of romance set against a familiar universal constant -- the quotidian cup of joe “Get up, get down…,” coos Meath with all the wisdom and weariness of a melancholy mentor, “the sentiment’s the same but the pair of feet change.” The song’s aesthetic remains vividly defined despite the inclusion of innumerable sounds and bevies of layers interchanging throughout the track.  Nuances and intricacies continually emerge and add repeat listening value to this understated yet truly infectious single.

Elsewhere, the alchemical formula continues to churn out gold.  Hey Mami swells from humble beginnings of ambient boat noise and harmonious loops to include tonal hand claps, pulsing synths that inhale and exhale in rhythm, and some clever observational commentary on unsolicited male attention.  The hyper-verbose lyrics of Dress dissipate into a riff-driven chorus backed by buzzy bass and an ethereal montage of Meath’s vocal fragments.  Though perhaps least captivating of the 10 tracks on display, H.S.K.T still manages to evoke a head-nodding groove with a high-hat backbeat, echo effects, and jungle drum pad timbres.  Overall, the album’s sub-40-minute runtime leaves minimal room for filler.

Little doubt remains that Sylvan Esso’s launch trajectory is quickly steepening, and recent spots on NPR and in the New York Times will only provide added thrust.  Last week, the band celebrated a hometown album release party with nearly 1,000 rowdy fans before departing on tour in support of tUnE-yArDs.  The show was a fond and fiercely energetic farewell to an embryonic pairing who has found support and success in their respective strengths.  Together, with figurative full bellies and pearly whites, the symbiosis of Sylvan Esso is poised to thrive in its competitive he-she electro ecosystem.