Dizzy Spins: Sylvan Esso - No Rules Sandy
The latest release from the electronic pop duo defies the norms on Open Air.
Although my Open Air co-host, Dave Jackson and I pride ourselves on reaching far and wide from the edges of blues, jazz, world, folk, indie-rock, and soul on our show - we still have a pretty string-based acoustic singer-songwriter spice flavoring it. Because of this, we were musing at why an electronic pop duo has become a household name here at JPR. It’s because there's something raw, real and organic about Sylvan Esso that makes them irresistible for us on Open Air.
Musical chameleon Amelia Meath (also of the folk group Mountain Man) takes the helm with lyrics and vocals, with her musical and life partner Nick Sanborn adding the production and electronic soundscapes and textures that make up the duo Sylvan Esso. They’re known for creating loopy, danceable, yet relatable ear-worms.
While their lyrics are usually metaphorical and riddle-like, in an interview with Rolling Stone Amelia and Nick expressed their commitment to honesty and portraying reality. From the subjects of their songs to the production and delivery of their music, they value authenticity over polish.
In an episode of the music podcast: Song Exploder “where musicians take apart their songs, and piece by piece, tell the story of how they were made,” SE discusses Coffee, a single from their debut self-titled release from 2014. The duo shares how initially they chose to collaborate on this song due to a jangly, bell-like element in one of Nick's sample catalogs that attracted Amelia – a sample he explains he created by using a child's toy keyboard/xylophone. The clicking of the keys is about as loud as the actual note the keys produce. Nick suggests ninety percent of why he likes this sound is because of this life-like reflection. It's the application of this aesthetic that makes Sylvan Essos sonic moniker.
With three studio and two live full length albums under their belt, Sylvan Esso fortifies their sound, brand, and messaging in the latest studio release No Rules Sandy (August 12, 2022). Although Sylvan Essos lyric content is semi cryptic, the themes allude to aftermath and being overwhelmed by a fast moving world put on involuntary pause. It’s a commentary on our society's relationship to media and the state of media itself, as well as themes of changing self-perception.
The leadoff track Moving portrays a lack of control or ability to feel deep feeling, a numbness due to overstimulation. Lyrics “How can I be moved when everything is moving?” accompanied by whirling instrumentals that give the feeling of being spun too fast on a merry-go-round. As a performing artist myself, this reminded me of the catch 22 feeling of having so much “free time” allotted by the covid pandemic, potentially time I could have been creating new material, but because of so much external uncertainty, the drive was squashed. All the time and space, but with inspiration strangled. You can’t conduct a soulful or intellectual conversation when you don't have your legs underneath you.
Look at Me is another song reflecting our current reality, or perhaps virtual reality. It seems to be saying, “look at me playfully dancing around like a grounded teen in front of a bedroom mirror, mesmerized by tech and addiction to social approval” A relatable need to be acknowledged, but as the “spotlight- ready” self we've curated to present. A desire for attention, versus connection. There's a sadness as well as a willing participation in this obsession with image.
Echo Party steps up a gear in tempo and gives us some classic four-on-the-floor pop grooves with its hook, “There's a lot of people dancing downtown, Yeah, we all fall down, but some stay where they got dropped, It's an echo party ringing all around,” a mixture of celebration and melancholy.
For years, Amelia and Nick had been very private about their romantic relationship, wanting to keep press and fans focused on their music rather than their personal lives. Recently, they've opened up about their love story, and getting married between their first and second albums. Track seven, Didn’t Care, on No Rules Sandy seems to be about the fear of and then the sensations following the transition to the new public identity of being a married couple.
Your Reality mixes electronic beats and blips with swelling orchestral strings posing as a title track for the album with soft background vocals and “no rules Sandy,” as a repeating mantra suggesting that we are capable of creating our own reality.
Amelia Meath has spoken openly through the years about how songwriting does not come to her naturally. For her it can feel like drawing blood from a stone, and she regularly experiences fear that she will not be able to write a song again, ironically each time she sits down and writes one. With the track Cloud Walker, I imagine she is singing to her muse. I’ve heard the duo divulge that within their collaborative process they name their individual inspired ideas as “little clouds” and those instances where they don't support or encourage the other’s idea or choice, they term: “sh*%$ing on my cloud.” This eleventh song on the new album seems to liken “cloud walking” to their creative work.
Alarm is my favorite, a toe-tapping anthem reminding me of Martha and the Vandellas’ 1964 Dancing in the Street. “Calling out across the world, are you ready for a brand new beat… Philadelphia Pa, Baltimore and DC now, can't forget the motor city…this is an invitation across the nation, a chance for folks to meet..” This modern electronic version says: “Everybody's moving, moving in the street, everybody's dancing, each step is to the beat, everybody's ringing, from crown of head to feet, coast to coast…Ashland, in Oakland, Los Angeles, in Houston, in Brooklyn, the Twin Cities, in Denver, in Cleveland, in Santa Fe, OK City, Montgomery, across the USA…” Music is certainly a powerful tool for bringing people together on some common ground, at the very simplest, a dance floor. What's a better feel-good message than positive commonality and togetherness?
Top to bottom No Rules Sandy delivers us a generous sample of the human and artist experience we can relate to, complete with anxiety, surrender, frustration and joy, and all to beats that you can cry, clean the house or dance to. Because of their poetry, choice of melodies, rhythms and organic textures, Sylvan Esso doesn't require any certain genre classification for the duo to be a staple go-to in our eclectic rootsy JPR music library. Hope you’ll have a good wiggle or daydream next time you hear us spin a track this month from the new release No Rules Sandy.