Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn present their third studio album as Sylvan Esso. Originating in Los Angeles with collaborator Jon Hill and completed at their home studio in North Carolina, Free Love manages to be their most accessible and complex work yet, examining issues from self-worth to the environment with an upbeat disposition.
Vinyl LP £20.49 LVR01344
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Limited edition, indies only opaque sky blue vinyl, gatefold LP on Loma Vista.
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Sylvan Esso have made hay by bringing quirk and charm to the well-worn sounds of synth-pop. The duo of Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn - a married couple outside the music - are at their most distinctive when they shimmy in the spaces between their influences, working the channels of both contemporary leaders in the field (Robyn, Porches) and some more quixotic acts from days of yore (Laurie Anderson).
This maxim holds true once more on their winning third LP ‘Free Love’. Anderson is the artist who first comes to mind when listening to album opener ‘What If’ due to the metallic tang which permeates Meath’s vocal harmonies. Similar sounds can be heard on ‘Train’ and closer ‘Make It Easy’, the latter bookending the record neatly alongside ‘What If’.
The pair’s quirkiness works in their favour when the energy picks up too. ‘What If’ runs immediately into ‘Ring’, a track where the synthetic beds are punctured by all these interesting little sounds which blurt up through the mix. The cool combination of half- and double-time rhythms allows ‘Ring’ to ebb and swell, but the track’s levy never breaks and as such it maintains a sense of playful coyness to the close. A similar tension is spun to nervier ends on highlight ‘Numb’, the track’s jittery synths and drum loops hanging in the air before trailing off. Meath is particularly good here, her vocals swooping and darting around the beats but never quite settling, and similarly idiosyncratic performances enliven tunes like ‘Train’.
Occasionally the band’s quirkier tendencies go too far and slide slightly into sugariness. ‘Ferris Wheel’ and ‘Runaway’ feature Milennial-pop “woahs” and “yips” which, though they may be knowing, become a little grating after a while. ‘Rooftop Dancing’s looped “oh”s and playground singing is also a tad saccharine. However, when they manage to keep their style on the right side of cutesy, Sylvan Esso deliver some of their best work - take ‘Free’, which begins with a snippet of downtime audio in which Meath and Sanborn share “I love yous” before opening up into a daringly spare centrepiece, one built from little more than pulsing chords and a hushed vocal that comes off like words spoken under the covers.
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