If you follow this blog, you may have recognized that it has a propensity to change from week to week. What started out as a fun way to keep up with new music and share a playlist has turned into somewhat of a creative outlet for me. While I do follow a certain format each week, the thematic direction of the post is something I try to allow to come about organically. It likely reflects things I might be thinking about or feeling at that particular moment.
That said, you can expect the focus of the writing to shift from week to week. Some weeks you’ll get jokes, others you’ll find me on a soapbox. This week, I found myself getting back to the basics of the blog: the music. It’s a deeper dive into band composition and history, and the nuts and bolts of song structure.
“Die Young,” Sylvan Esso (JH)
Vocalist Amelia Meath and producer Nick Sanborn comprise the band Sylvan Esso, the source of our first weekly winner. Meath was part of the elusive all-female trio Mountain Man, known for their simple folk tunes featuring beautiful three part harmonies, as well as their cult following. Meath teamed up with Sanborn in 2012 when she asked him to compose a take on her song “Play it Right.” The chemistry between her folk melodies and his electronic compositions was immediate and undeniable, and thus was born Sylvan Esso.
This track comes ahead of the band’s second LP, slated for release in late April. It also comes on the tails of a couple other recent singles from the band, one of which — “Radio” — was one of my favorite songs of Summer 2016.
“Die Young” tells the tale of a young woman, presumably Meath, who was quite content living life in the moment, with little consideration toward the future. Life (love?) catches her by surprise, and all of a sudden she has reason to think about sticking around to grow old. She presents it lyrically almost as an inconvenience (“I was gonna die young, now I gotta wait for you, hun”), but you can hear in her voice that this is a welcome change. This theme is pretty universal — finding meaning in life, a purpose outside oneself, thinking long term.
For me, however, the greatness of this song comes through not in its message or its lyrics, but in its composition. Sanborn provides some of his best work to date, blending strong bass tones with a varied percussion backing and some found sounds reminiscent of an 8-bit videogame soundtrack. Combine that with Meath’s vocals and a catchy chorus, and we’re cooking with gas. My favorite aspect of this song is its subtle unpredictability. It has some of the sensibilities of a conventional pop song, but just when you expect a zig, it takes a hard zag, piquing the listener’s interest and maintaining a certain freshness.
This was a pretty easy selection for a weekly winner. Jake claimed it as early as Monday, a bit to my chagrin. This, however, opened the door for a midweek release from an old favorite, one which we haven’t heard from in quite some time, to sneak in for a nomination…
“3WW,” alt-J (EJ)
alt-J is back from a three year hiatus with a new song accompanying the announcement of Relaxer, their followup to 2014’s This Is All Yours, set to drop early June. The band has always been known for their unique blending of sounds and an ability to get maximal sound from a somewhat minimalist approach. This new single is no different, and is perhaps signaling an even more adventurous path for the British trio (formerly a quartet — bassist Gwil Sainsbury has since departed).
“3WW” features the dichotomous arrangement of a subdued instrumental component with a traditional African tribal influence, and a vocal-driven component with the familiar pensive quality of alt-J’s softer songs that benefits from the added contribution of Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowsell. After an ethereal instrumental intro, the vocals enter with the same subdued motif. The song then peaks at the 2:38 mark with crescendoed vocals, followed by the comparably hushed line, “I just want to love you in my own language,” backed by soft piano and nylon-stringed guitars. After an interlude that finds an exciting groove, this peak is echoed at 3:58, but with the added depth of Rowsell’s voice. The song’s smooth softness then returns up until the finish.
Considering alt-J’s body of work, looking specifically at past singles, one might infer from this track that the band is going through an evolution. Previous single releases from the first two albums featured the most radio-friendly songs (whatever that means in terms of alt-J) — those with the least relative risk and broadest appeal for a band that is, at baseline, pushing the boundaries. This track pushes through the boundary and over the edge, and if it’s a signal for the direction of Relaxer, we are in store for something new.
Evolution is tricky. For the band that featured Miley Cyrus on their last album and has gone through a recent shakeup in its personnel, I’m delighted to see what that might mean.
As was alluded to earlier, Jake and I both had quite the thing for the Sylvan Esso jam — it was definitely the number one draft pick of the week. While “3WW” is very good and grows on me with each subsequent listen, it doesn’t really have the character of a belt holder. It’ll be interesting to see what alt-J has in store for us with Relaxer, and whether they’ll have some fight in them for belt contention. For now, however, Week 8 is coming up all Sylvan Esso.
Your weekly winner,
Sylvan Esso ::: Die Young
“Feel it Still,” Portugal. the Man
- For purposes of bliss provision, this song is right up there with “Die Young” as my favorite of the week. It’s light and jaunty with a bit of a retro vibe — overall very cool. Portugal. the Man made headlines this week after the release of this video, which featured the burning of a newspaper labeled “Info Wars.” This caught the ire of lizard person and Trump toady Alex J0nes of the propaganda arm InfoWars, who published an article attempting to deride them as…GASP…social justice warriors!!! IMO, if you’re pissing off Alex Jones, you’ve got to be doing something right. Kudos, Portugal. the Man.
“A closeness,” Dermot Kennedy
- This Irish artist provides another entry in the “digital folk” genre, from which we’ve already gotten some good tunes this year. The song has a serious and melancholy vibe, echoed by the cover art that was released with the single.
Why are you so sad, Dermot? Cheer up little buddy! His expression in this picture reminds me of that scene in Scrubs where JD and the delivery guy compete for “loneliest guy in the hospital.” Lolz
“I Could Make You So Happy,” Bombadil
- How can you go wrong with a band named after a J.R.R. Tolkien character? These guys put their own indie spin on folk with some great Simon & Garfunkel brand harmonies, and their lead singer sounds just like Cat Stevens (Yusuf Islam if ya nasty). Their new album Fences is a solid listen front to back.
“This Ole King,” WHY?
- This song is my first exposure to this Bay-area group, although they’ve been around for 15 years. This track has a calming quality, an ode to the natural world that evokes images of a cool forest, and features an excellent chorus that stays with you. This track leads off their latest album Moh Lhean, which was interestingly fully home-recorded.
“Better Give U Up,” FKJ
- FKJ stands for French Kiwi Juice, which is also the name of the very solid EP from which this track comes. FKJ is a French artist specializing in smooth, funky electronica, and his EP is a nice compilation of pretty mellow grooves with some strong melodies.
“Can’t Lose,” Iggy Azalea ft. Lil Uzi Vert
- “Fancy” was played to death, I was more than okay with an extended Iggy break. That said I was kinda starting to wonder what had happened to her. Glad to see she’s coming out with some new work. This song is off of Def Jam Presents: Direct Deposit (Vol. 2). Lots of good stuff to be found on there.
“Higher,” Brian Fresco ft. Chance the Rapper & Blue Hawaii
- This was a recommendation from friend of the blog Rachel. This song is a lot of fun and has a great driving beat. Also featuring beloved Chance the Rapper so obviously very happy about that.
“I Think of You,” Jeremih ft. Big Sean,
- Pretty much what you’d expect out of a song from these two (we’ll pretend Chris Brown isn’t here). Very poppy hip hop and I dig it. Also off of Direct Deposit (Vol. 2).
“Shape of You (Major Lazer Remix),” Ed Sheeran ft. Major Lazer, Nyla, & Kranium
- I’m a sucker for Major Lazer remixes. I’m not generally a huge Ed Sheeran guy but I did really like Shape of You. Pair that with Major Lazer and we’re in business.
SHOWDOWN FOR THE BELT
***DISCLAIMER: THE FOLLOWING FOUR (4) PARAGRAPHS ARE EXTREMELY “INSIDE BASEBALL” AND MAY BE INCREDIBLY BORING TO THE READER WHO COULDN’T GIVE LESS OF A SHIT HOW WE PICK THE SONGS FOR THIS BLOG. FEEL FREE TO SKIP TO THE END IF ALL YOU CARE ABOUT IS THE WINNER.***
The belt showdown this week spurred a rather frank (and, frankly, rather-needed) discussion regarding proper protocol for passage of the belt. It’s difficult to define specific parameters for which song should best the other. Thus far, we’ve relied on, to put it simply, a “feeling.” (Super subjective and informative, I know.) If a song came out that felt worthy based on one or both of our opinions at the end of a given week, we gave it the honor of the belt.
“Slide” threw that system for a bit of a loop. For the first time this year, it looked pretty certain that a song was going to be BIG. “Slide” has going for it a certain staying power. Between its high quality, broad appeal, and star power, it’s safe to say that this song will be in heavy rotation for months and months to come, leaving a significant mark on the musical landscape of 2017. If any song we’ve encountered so far this year deserves to hold the belt for an extended run, it’s this one.
That said, Jacob and I both LOVE the new Sylvan Esso. It was basically a consensus for nomination and an easy pick for weekly winner. So should a song this good suffer defeat because it was unfortunate enough to come out the week after a juggernaut? Alternatively, should a juggernaut have its run cut short due to recency bias?
The conclusion that ultimately came about was that a good song should not be penalized for its proximity to a song with broader influence. The goal of this blog is to bring to light what we deem the best of the best of 2017 — on a week to week basis. In the end, the length of any song’s reign shouldn’t matter, and is far less important than giving recognition where it is due. That, and it makes for a much better playlist when we just put the good shit on there and don’t overthink it too much.
In stunning fashion and with a fresh energy, the duo of Sylvan Esso knocks off the highly touted reigning champs to claim the belt. In the spirit of March Madness, it’s upset city baby!