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Thursday, November 6, 2014

Live: Sylvan Esso ups the ante

Posted by on Thu, Nov 6, 2014 at 7:56 AM

click to enlarge esso.jpg
Sylvan Esso
Haw River Ballroom
Friday, Oct. 31, 2014

I walked into the Haw River Ballroom on Halloween night to find a guy in a bunny suit rapping while a Kid Rock lookalike stood with his arms folded at the back of the stage. This, to put it mildly, was unexpected.

I was there to see Durham electro-pop breakouts Sylvan Esso, who were just back from a seemingly endless tour that took them as far as Europe and as high as Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. The capacity crowd was there for the same purpose, judging from its tepid reaction to this unannounced rabbit-trap interlude between opener Flock of Dimes (whom I regrettably missed) and the main event.

The MC in question was Josh Kimbrough of the band Butterflies, who was announced by the Kid Rock clone as “the slowest rapper in the world, Lil’ Press Pot.” (He’s a barista.) One got the idea, but it didn’t quite gel. The problem was that it wasn’t clear whether the rapping was supposed to be good or funny. The deflating introduction made it seem like it wasn’t supposed to be the former. And as for the latter, parody rap is always a dicey proposition at best.

In any case, the performance landed in an uncomfortable limbo between the two. It did not move the crowd, who could be seen from the balcony to be standing stock still, with a palpable air of only waiting it out. People were neither crunked up nor amused, just confused as to how they were supposed to take the gag.

’90s rap and R&B blared as we waited for Sylvan Esso—Montell Jordan’s “This is How We Do It” and Ginuwine’s “Pony.” Skeletons hung high on the walls of the Ballroom, looming over revelers who were not as prodigiously costumed as one might have expected. (Mea culpa: I utterly failed to pull together a costume this year.) The one outfit that kept catching my eye was a guy wearing a suit of Christmas lights. How did he power them?

Any suspicion that Lil’ Press Pot had simply faced a dud crowd was dispelled when the headliners took the stage. These people—a good number of them for indie rock circles, anyway—were ready to party, and I moved down to the main floor to join the dancers. The young woman in front of me was so amped that she kept leaning waaaaaay back and wildly wind-milling her arms, like Neo dodging bullets in The Matrix. Over the course of the night, she managed to punch me in the dick three times.

It was difficult to make out Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn’s costumes, as the stage was usually either pitch-dark or lit by two blinding poles of white lights fired directly into our eyes. Meath was definitely wearing some sort of wig, and Sanborn definitely looked like a Colonial pirate on the cover of a bodice-ripper. (I learned later that they were Mick Fleetwood and Stevie Nicks, as seen on the cover of Rumours. I was right about the pirate!)

They kept their banter minimal except for requisite acknowledgements of how good it was to be home—and of the relative brevity, for a headliner, of their set, since they were still working material from their May 2014 debut album, or all the material they’ve got.

I like Sylvan Esso, but I’m not quite in love—yet. Meath is a fantastic, confident singer, and her vocals provide the majority of the music’s mobility. The aspect that I feel has more room to develop is Sanborn’s production. I love minimalist music, from electronic to classical, but "minimalist" doesn't simply mean leaving stuff out. That taut internal compression that makes minimalist music feel like it moves mountains with the tiniest shifts manifests intermittently in Sylvan Esso—most notably around the slanted chimes of “Coffee,” which sounded terrific.

Other times, the tracks can feel airy and inert at their cores. You have to will yourself to dance to them, rather than being irresistibly moved. Perhaps as a result of taking these songs on the road so extensively, it seemed like Sanborn is taking steps to rectify this. This was a more muscular Sylvan Esso than we hear on the record—and than we heard at their record release party at Cat’s Cradle earlier this year. The programmed snares popped harder and the bass synths that Sanborn favors were pumped up to acid house proportions, at times even verging on brostep. Some of the structures even seemed altered. The growl that plays through the back half of “Could I Be,” for instance, got pulled up front and wrought into heavy, slippery whorls. I'd still like to hear Sylvan Esso build more inner tension into their tracks, but these external additions definitely helped. 

There were further surprises. Dancers in skeleton sweatshirts came on stage to pop and lock to “HSKT,” and the encore was a fun cover of The Strokes’ “Hard to Explain,” though it was clear that meshing the vocal harmonies was still a work in progress. Sanborn also seemed freer and looser at his console than before; for example, he transitioned between two tracks by braiding and slowing down some vocal loops in real time.

This was a notable change from the almost karaoke feel of the Cat's Cradle show. It brought a welcome element of spontaneity to the performance, and, while I still think Sanborn could use a couple more tools in his live rig to avoid stiffness, the band felt more dynamic for it.

Like I said, I'm not quite in love, but with the direction suggested by this show, I'm well on my way.

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