Humans have an interesting relationship with music centered around deep & rhythmic bass. We interact with this music differently than other types. It can fulfill an almost animal like desire to loose oneself within the structure of repetitive played low and powerful tones. These days this need is usually met through electronic dance music (and occasionally hip hop), with often predictable beat/song progressions crafted around dramatic dance-inducing “builds” and “drops”, with each track trying to find a new way of projecting a feeling of high energy. Of course this is a simplification of the many types of EDM that exists, but one that on balance holds water.
But what happens when you want to fulfill the people’s desire for deep bass yet want to do so within songs that are otherwise more relaxed, nuanced and vocally focused? Songs that don’t look so much to the drop, but instead to pleasing melodies? Well that’s what happened when Sylvan Esso came to Nashville and played to a sold out and highly anticipatory Cannery Ballroom.
Sylvan Esso quickly rose to notoriety after the release of their 2014 self-titled debut album, with the song Coffee receiving decent radio exposure. The group is comprised of just two musicians, Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn. Their performance stage is sparse and simple, with a light show consisting of LED lights in the shape of what almost looks like the symbols for rewind and fast-forward back to back (<< << >> >>). Nick is playing the part of DJ, but just with a laptop and simple control surface of some kind, while Amelia walks the stage singing each and every song. They don’t try to hide the uncomplicated manner in which they bring their music to life, in fact they seem to embrace it, inviting the fans’ attention to simple stay on Amelia and the lights behind her.
It was interesting to be at a show that simultaneously placed as much attention on the almost singer-songwriter like vocals as the hard hitting bass tones, and they did hit hard on this night, undoubtedly testing Cannery Ballroom’s subwoofer system. The crowd ate up Amelia and her playful & mellifluous singing style. On such tracks as Hey Mami, Dreamy Blues, and Coffee one could hear the dense crowd – which was noticeably majority female – singing along with every word.
The most potent part of the show was definitely the lights, which in this indoor and crowded venue came off as incredibly bright (clearly they are designed to be able to be seen at a distance in an outdoor setting). It took a couple songs for one’s eyes to get used to the brightness. But the light programming on the simple shapes of the lights was creative and not that repetitive, and undoubtedly added positively to the overall experience, which was necessary considering that just watching Amelia sing would have eventually become visually dull.
The atmosphere throughout the show was jolly; it was devoid of aggression yet not energy. That was the most poignant aspect of being in the crowd, how everyone’s chest thumped, yet our ears followed the playful & sweet-sounding vocal melodies. Friendly indie pop melodies that on the surface don’t seem like they should be laid over the music it is. Sylvan Esso has found a way to walk an interesting line here, combining the skeletal elements of different genres in a simple and straightforward manner without ever trying to accomplish too much. And their deft use of negative space was also apparent, especially in tracks such as Dress, when the minimalism of the beat did not lead to a feeling of hearing anything plain – which is harder to accomplish live than on an album.
This is not to say that things didn’t get a bit lively at times, such as when they played H.S.K.T., with it’s bouncing joyous rhythm and sing-along friendly vocals. The most raucous moment of the evening came with a new song of theirs (sorry, I couldn’t catch the track name), which was the most traditional EDM like experience of the whole evening. The crowd was awash in pumping fists and waving hands. And while it was good fun and certainly placated the crowd with it’s higher energy level, this author hopes it isn’t the general direction the band is moving towards as it seems like a turn towards entertaining larger live crowds (the band is gearing up to play their first round of festivals this year, so that move would make sense in that regard).
Overall, consider that this young duo are “rookies” who probably shot to notoriety quicker than they thought was possible, it was quiet the entertaining show. Through enticing both those who worship the beat, as well as the more subdued vocal singer-songwriter, they’ve created quite the niche for themselves. It will be quiet interesting to see how they adapt at commanding their stage as they start to play to larger and larger crowds as well as at summer festivals. Here’s to hoping they stick to the sound they’ve found, because it’s quite nice to have the option of getting your bass fix without the utter exuberance that usually accompanies attending an EDM show.
Written by Sean Brna
OurVinyl | Contributor