I still remember the first moment I saw Amelia Meath live on stage. And it wasn’t as a part of Sylvan Esso. She wasn’t even the main act.
Mountain Man was opening for a local band in Minneapolis, but I wasn’t there for either of them. I was there – alone – for the first of two openers, Emily Wells, at the Cedar Cultural Center. I don’t even remember why. I went to a lot of shows back then, just because I could.
But as three arresting women stood on stage and sang folk tunes a cappella, I knew I would remember that moment for a long time to come. This short, blonde woman in denim overalls on one side of the stage had the brightest, most intense eyes, with the most direct and unnerving gaze. I knew the clearest voice of the three was hers, that specific sound my ears latched onto was coming from the release of her breath. I couldn’t look away.
This, I would later come to find out, was Amelia Meath.
So it doesn’t surprise me that she led the way back into an acoustic revival of her and Nick Sanborn’s work, as Sylvan Esso. The duo’s project came about because Sanborn remixed Mountain Man’ song “Play It Right,” and they ran with it. I’d bet Meath’s creative process today still stems from the organic, acoustic roots where she began her vocal career. Listening to Sylvan Esso’s Echo Mountain Sessions EP makes me wonder if these versions of the songs are how Meath hears them from the beginning.
“Rewind” is jazzy, percussive, groovy. Simple. But swing-able. Instead of dancing along to the song, I want to play along with a keyboard, a bass, an egg shaker. There’s flute, electric guitar, and the electricity that comes with the anticipation of “what’s next?” We think we know these songs, but not in this way. Not yet. Not until now.
Many artists do acoustic versions of their songs, but they’re usually stripped down. This time, Sylvan Esso does the opposite: these songs are built up, expanded. Fleshed out. Fresh, bright, sparkling and new.
“Die Young” sounds like it was covered by a small big band, with saxophones and the funk of decades prior. “The Glow” jumps and jives with the horns, and shakes its thing in a way that complements the original.
When people complain that seeing electronic music live isn’t really seeing it live, it truly depends what band you’re talking about. Bands that build their sound on studio electronics have to reinvent themselves for stage shows, and the result can be underwhelming or electric. But Sylvan Esso have broken the box of what “live” electronic music can truly be – with full instrumentation, a collaborative group of musicians, an assortment of acoustic sounds, and that raw energy that only comes with a full drum set.
The emotional poignancy of “Slackjaw” with piano alone hits deeper; the image of human hands striking the keys on each beat pulsing in tandem with my heart. Meath is unreserved, unfiltered. Laid bare. “I’ve got everything I need,” she sings, and I agree.
There is such a remarkable freedom in each of these songs; a raw quality so rare in electronic acts.
And although it’s recorded, as a visual EP it’s like we’re hearing them live every time. One small step removed from being in the room with them. What I would give to see them this way in person just once in my life.
Like a prism, the white light that is Sylvan Esso gets broken into a multidimensional rainbow of colors that is even more beautiful. And to think – these colors have been waiting in the white light all this time. On the Echo Mountain Sessions EP, we get a short and glorious glimpse of other side.