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Album Review: Sylvan Esso “What Now”

When a friend first showed me Sylvan Esso, I wrote them off as a lesser continuation of the male producer/female vocalist trend (Sleigh Bells, Phantogram, Chairlift). Those acts all flared and died, and nothing on Sylvan Esso’s first album struck me as anything. Fast-forward to the release of Radio,”  a sarcastic romp that exposed pop culture’s flaws better than that dismal Katie Perry single, and I was intrigued. Sylvan Esso proved that even when mocking radio’s rigid time constraints (“three-point-three-oh”) and inability to be satisfied (“give me a new single, give me a new baby”) they could meet it’s demands. “It’s so easy” the North Carolina duo seemed to say with this song. “We can pander to this.” So what else would the band get into on their album What Now?

Mostly they spend their time eschewing the mainstream’s smoothed-over ideals of pop while proving their take can provide similar thrills. In a pop world where even Lady Gaga is making music that sounds like the Chainsmokers, they’ve crafted a more textured and idiosyncratic possibility for what electronic pop could be. The soundscapes that producer Nick Sanborn crafts sounds almost collaged together, the glue still visible. The album opens up with a lullaby, it’s warped synth so distorted it sounds like a kazoo before transitioning into a skipping tape sound. Sounds ping around each other, drums clatter in the background (the ones on “Rewind” sound like they are falling down the stairs), and looped backing vocals are clipped at the end. Even the relatively straightforward folk-electronic song “The Glow” can’t help but bursting into a squiggling bouquet of synth noise.  Still, for all it’s disparate parts, the album is never abrasive. Listening to it is like falling into a warm bath.

Part of that comfort comes from the legacy of alternative-leaning pop music the duo draws on. The album is full of the kind of analogue synth noises that remind me of early 2000s acts like The Blow, as well as Imogene Heap’s work with a vocorder. “Just Dancing” sounds like a bloghouse smash. The opening tick-tick-tick mirrors The Gossip’s “Standing in the Way of Control” before the Passion Pit synths enter the picture.

The group raids other sources of music for inspiration as well, with Amelia Meath acting out the role of the dancefloor diva with all the answers.  “It’s a rigged game, and I know how to win it” she reveals on “Just Dancing.” On “Song” she outlines the subservient edge to pop idolatry, singing “I’m the song that’s promising you all your wants and needs and needs and needs and needs.” Meath describes all of this with the same knowing smirk she deployed on their breakout single “Hey Mami.” She knows it’s all fake, and let’s us know multiple times. What’s real is the majesty of her voice. Soulful and elastic, it’s coffeehouse flavor reflects her time spent in the folk band Mountain Man. When it matches up with Sanborn’s hodgepodge of organic and artificial sounds like on “Die Young” the band makes good on the promise of “Radio.”  “Die Young” is a wistful tale of a cynic realizing that they have to abandon their fast-paced life to grow old with their beloved. “I was gonna die young, now I gotta wait for you honey” Meath sings on the chorus, all trace of a smirk forgotten for once. It’s a killer song from an album that proves the duo should not be ignored. What Now is out April 28th.

Album Review by Mo Wilson. Follow him here

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