Much like Lorde and CHVRCHES before them, Sylvan Esso burst onto the scene seemingly out of nowhere in 2014 by doing what seems fairly ordinary- making electopop songs with little more than vocals and programming. All of these acts arrived from unexpected places as well, with CHVRCHES hailing from Scotland, Lorde from New Zealand and Sylvan Esso maintaining a home base in North Carolina of all places. The duo (vocalist Amelia Meath and producer Nick Sanborn) both have prior experience with other groups, though Heath makes a larger leap here from her previous gig singing 3-part harmonies in the pared down folk group Mountain Man.
The differences between her work there and the cutting edge hipness of Sylvan Esso makes for an interesting juxtaposition, with Heath sometimes looking like a fish out of water in live performances and at other times busting out killer dance moves. It takes major charisma to carry a crowd without a backing band- just you and a mic and a guy twisting dials next to you, but with quality songwriting much can be forgiven, and Sylvan Esso earn their fair share of pardons.
While the album does a good job of placing slower numbers here and there to balance things out, the standouts tracks are without question the up-tempo jams. The pair is strong out of the gate with ‘Hey Mami’, which builds from sparse hand claps and layered vocal hooks into a twitchy rave-up that somehow manages to feel organic despite all the fuzzy synths and beats.
‘Coffee’, the breakout track from the album, mines a similar vein, expertly mixing emotive lyrics with modern production as Meath drops abstracted lyrics about dancing and falling in love. It’s a gem of a song with a chorus that plays like a sonic tranquilizer as Meath coos over a minimalist beat “Get up, get down” and starry effects twinkle in the background.
‘Could I Be’ is incredibly addictive, ‘H.S.K.T.’ grooves imaginatively and the hits keep coming even towards the end with ‘Play It Right’, the Mountain Man track that Sanborn was asked to rework by Meath when the two were still in separate bands. It’s hard to know what the future might hold for a group of such unlikely collaborators, but for the time being Sylvan Esso is an exciting reminder that risk and reward still reliably go hand in hand.