Music
3:00 pm
Wed May 14, 2014

Sylvan Esso: Finding Humanity Between The Synths

Originally published on Thu May 15, 2014 7:27 am

In the right hands, a synthesized bass drop can break my heart as effectively as a guitar melody. So I'm thrilled when lyric-centered songwriters like James Blake or Bjork use the tonal language of dance music to move beyond the dance floor.

Add to that list Amelia Meath, whose gorgeous work with Mountain Man had me thinking she was merely a folk-singing savant who probably made her own kombucha. But with Sylvan Esso, her new group with electronic-music producer Nick Sanborn, all bets are off.

Sylvan Esso's debut isn't just folk songs with electronics replacing stringed instruments. Instead, it uses the loops, builds and programmed beats of dance music to warp and reframe old-school melodies. You may even recognize a couple, like the spectral fragment of Tommy James and the Shondells in the song "Coffee." Unlike much electronic music, the tempos are generally slow and the arrangements spacious, so Meath's voice has plenty of room to maneuver.

Some listeners still find electronic music dehumanizing, yet Meath and Sanborn know that, at this point, most of us are cyborgs to some extent. What matters is how we flex our humanity alongside the machines.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

As part of the Vermont-based trio Mountain Man, Ameila Meath makes what most people would call folk music.

SYLVAN ESSO: (Singing) When the stars come together so close to my face. It's no wonder we wonder what's taking place. Oh, I feel like an animal in the night.

CORNISH: Now she has a new group with electronic music producer Nick Sanborn. It's called Sylvan Esso. Their self-titled debut has just been released, and critic Will Hermes has this review.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ESSO: (Singing) We come to grips with (unintelligible).

WILL HERMES, BYLINE: In the right hands, a synthesized bass drop can break my heart as effectively as a guitar melody. So I'm thrilled when lyric-centered songwriters like James Blake or Bjork use the tonal language of dance music to go beyond the dance floor.

Add to that list Amelia Meath, whose gorgeous work with Mountain Man had me thinking she was merely a folk-singing savant who probably made her own kombucha. With Sylvan Esso, though, all bets are off.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ESSO: (Singing) Sing that song like I know you can. (Unintelligible).

HERMES: Sylvan Esso's debut isn't just folk songs with electronics replacing stringed instruments. Instead it uses the loops, builds and programmed beats of dance music to warp and re-frame old-school melodies. A couple you may even recognize, like this spectral fragment of Tommy James and the Shondells in the song "Coffee."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COFFEE")

ESSO: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

HERMES: Unlike much electronic music, the tempos are generally slow and the arrangements spacious, so Amelia Meath's voice has plenty of room to maneuver.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ESSO: (Singing) We're chasing the glow. A pack of wolves we're running from, (unintelligible) a dream created from the videos. Our feet are getting raw, but our mouths still quietly sing the song.

HERMES: Some listeners still find electronic music dehumanizing, but Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn know that, at this point, most of us are cyborgs to some extent, anyway. What matters is how we flex our humanity alongside the machines.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ESSO: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

CORNISH: The self-titled debut release by Sylvan Esso is available on Partisan Records. Our critic Will Hermes is author of the book "Love Goes to Buildings on Fire."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ESSO: (Singing) We're as big as the ocean. I could hear all of your devotion.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Stay with us, ALL THINGS CONSIDERED continues right after this. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.