by Lauren Foliart
Describing Sylvan Esso’s stage arrangement is simple: a girl with a microphone, a guy with a sound mixer, some fog, and some lasers. If someone switched on the house lights during their show, that is what everyone would see. However, Sylvan Esso’s performance is anything but elementary. Every moment is engineered with intention and every note played with a purpose. They take stage fully prepared to make the crowd forget the outside world and just dance.
At the Fox Theater in Oakland, Sylvan Esso did just that for two sold out nights that will forever be remembered by Bay Area fans. Their energy was infectious; their sound flawless. What could have been just another 40-dollar-plus-fees concert, they orchestrated into a priceless experience I’m daydreaming about still.
Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn only met five years ago, which is almost hard to believe considering how lock-step they are on stage—a near psychic connection between them. In 2012, the two were involved with separate bands when Sylvan Esso became a side project. Meath wrote lyrics to a song she needed someone to articulate with production, and upon finding Sanborn, that song soon became their hit single, "Play It Right." Afterwards, the duo moved to North Carolina and started a partnership that ultimately changed their careers.
The duality of what each of the brings to Sylvan Esso is undeniable when they perform live. Meath’s unmistakable voice paired with her standalone presence makes her a riveting frontwoman. It feels like every one of her moves is organic, but at the same time choreographed, taking into consideration the smallest of details such as her shadowed silhouette in the light projections. However, if at any moment you found yourself so enthralled with her dancing that you forgot to dance yourself, Sanborn is there with a massive punch of bass to get your feet moving again. The sound he produces on stage is equally as provocative as what he creates in the studio.
Sylvan Esso’s stop in Oakland is one on an international tour, in support of their sophomore album What Now. For most of their fans, this was the first time hearing those new tracks which have become instant classic summer anthems. Even their older songs like “Coffee” and “H.S.K.T.”, which we have repeatedly played over and over again since 2014, felt new again.
Hyping this album since October 2016 when I saw them perform at Treasure Island Music Festival, it surprised me not to see their name on the festival circuit for 2017. Sylvan Esso provides the ultimate festival set: high energy dancing, large scale visuals and an overall performance worth seeing from start to finish. Now, after seeing them in a small renovated theater like the Fox, I understand why they opted out. Sylvan Esso wanted to give their fans exactly what they delivered—an intimate evening to dance their hearts out with the band.
by Emilio Arias
Confined and impermeable are not words generally associated with good or accessible music. Yet that’s exactly the world in which Adam Granduciel and his heartland/roots-rock outfit, The War on Drugs, brings us into and locks us in with their newest album, A Deeper Understanding. Much like the title implies, we the listeners are brought down and happily trapped into a dark and expansive subterranean sonic world full of loss, longing, sadness and desperate hope. Raw, powerful, soaring and fun to listen to, A Deeper Understanding takes all that you’ve come to love about life on the road with The War on Drugs and drives you towards a new setting sun.
At this point in their career The War on Drugs have heard all the comparisons, for better or for worse; Dylan, Petty, Springsteen, Young. But where most groups would swing between bristling at being unable to escape the shadow of their influences, or grudgingly stay the course and adopt the sounds of their heroes, The War on Drugs has taken that legendary foundation and remade it distinctly their own. A sound which has been honed, sharpened and steeped to a nearly perfect cocktail on this album. Granduciel’s hallmark exuberance (just you try not to get pumped when he shouts his joyful woo! on their 2014 track, “Red Eyes”) isn’t found anywhere on A Deeper Understanding. But it isn’t needed to convey the powerful themes running through the album; the sonic highways on which the album roars down provides all the speed you need.
Where their 2014 breakthrough album Lost in the Dream reached a fever pitch with slow builds and driving guitars, A Deeper Understanding is a fever dream, slowly heating up and breaking out into a cold sweat as we observe from the corner of Granduciel’s hermetically sealed mental studio. If Dylan wrote of fantastic characters brought to life by acidic metaphors, and Springsteen crafted heroically vivid stories of Americana, The War on Drugs gives us detailed recollections through that hazy window of half remembered memory.
But metaphors and imagery aside, what truly shines on A Deeper Understanding are the expansive and vice-grip arrangements and melodies; acting as their own rich story, standing apart from Granduciel’s longing lyricism. It’s impossible not to lose oneself in the complex guitar solos of “Pain,” or the brightly unexpected xylophone in “Holding On,” which is made all the more impressive when realizing that Granduciel produced most of the studio instrumentation on his own. The wandering loneliness and longing so elemental to this album is heightened by Granduciel’s literal solitude in its creation.
The War on Drugs has never shied away from a grand sonic vision, and that ambition is no more obvious than on the length of the tracks themselves. Clocking in at a healthy 66 minutes across ten individually gorgeous tracks, A Deeper Understanding is an insular journey down a forgotten highway towards an uncertain future or leaving behind a haunted past. Able to toe the line between a sealed in studio album that traps us in the dark and beautiful recesses of its creator's mind, while simultaneously granting us visions of an open and beautiful world, the album succeeds where other records might fail; eliciting a sense of loss and pain while at once being authentic and real, and leaving you with a sense of hope and optimism that your destination will be worth the journey.