Photos By Clarissa Villondo, Words By JEB Gavin
The only experience I’ve had with Sylvan Esso prior to Thursday night’s show at the 9:30 Club was their single “Coffee.” I know in describing what I expected of this show I used the phrase “featherweight saccharine pop” no less than five times, to just about anyone who’d listen to me. I think my friends think I hate being wrong. I hate not knowing, and being wrong is how I learn.
In my mind I had it singer Amelia Meath would be out front in a sundress, crooning pleasantly and giving the crowd diabetes. Producer Nick Sandborn would be standing behind, oh, a Rhodes piano off to the side, along with two or three other earnest, scruffy young men diligently making light, pleasant music with a guitar or two and a set of drums. They’d look like the hipsterified version of Allison Vernon-Williams singing with Baldwin and the Whiffles.
Instead there’s equal billing, Meath and Sandborn on equal footing. She had a microphone, he a small synthesizer and a laptop, standing downstage, backed only by a series of LED guillemets, indicating from whom sound, light, and energy would emit.
Speaking of which (and returning to my being wrong about their music,) Sylvan Esso does not make featherweight pop music. That’s not to say they’re producing Cage-ian, experimental think pieces, but the sound is more similar to Sleigh Bells without angry guitar riffs, or if HAIM and DARKSIDE were to collaborate (I would pay many, many dollars to see the latter happen, by the bye.)
I kept expecting finches from a Disney fairy tale lilting and floating along on effervescent tones, a sort of regression towards the mean musically. Audible pablum, the kind of music you’d play for an elderly relative so as to explain to them not all electronic music is about naked, neon teenagers screaming at toaster ovens (yes, this is a conversation that actually happened.)
Instead the result is more akin to a less cartoonish version of Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble.” There’s an element of electronic pop music verging on dubstep without the absurdity of dubstep hamfistedly crammed into a pop song. Meath’s voice swoops and circles, more a bird of prey than an animated songbird, but never menacing. There’s this comfort in vocals so assertive without being aggressive, played in the context of pop music.
Just prior to seeing the show I was having a conversation with a friend about pop music. He knew I was going to see Sylvan Esso and mused that at some point pop music became it’s own genre. Instead when we mean to say popular, we say Top 40, which is a commercial distinction. Perhaps pop music isn’t so much what is popular, but rather what should be based on its accessibility. In this regard, Sylvan Esso surprised me. This isn’t [derisively] pop music. This is [proudly] pop music. And it ought to be more popular.