New Music for 2014: Sylvan Esso and Holychild

By Gretchen Kast


With every new year, it seems that the music world churns out “bands you should be listening to” lists by the thousands. And while the sense of January’s shiny newness is intoxicating, I often find that it’s better to give it a month or so before making any solid predictions for the year to come. Let the playlists simmer for a bit and take inventory come February as to which songs continue to hold up. And so, with the first of March looming, I think I’ve finally settled on some of my favorites.

And, of course, as Will explained in his 2013 wrap-up, music lists are always inherently subjective. But that’s the fun! My taste is different than his taste and your taste and their tastes and let’s all get along anyway! Because for me, the only new music that has sparked any interest as of late has been decidedly pop-tinged. Maybe it’s because I essentially took a full year off of paying attention to the world of “Good Music” and listened exclusively to One Direction–but, these days, if it’s not catchy, I’m not interested. Thankfully, there are a ton of really talented artists making pop music right now.

So without much more introduction, here’s a preview of two bands you should probably be listening to (if you’re not already):

Sylvan Esso

I tell the same story every time one of Sylvan Esso’s three songs comes on my iTunes: how I didn’t mean to actually see them when they opened for Volcano Choir last fall. How I didn’t know who they were and I didn’t feel like rushing. How I ended up getting there on time anyway, and how no one in the crowd was paying much attention (as is the usual case with many opening acts) when they shuffled out and Amelia Meath started singing quietly. How the bass dropped and suddenly the murmuring stopped. How, by the end of their set, the whole crowd was dancing and cheering. How Nick Sanborn so earnestly gushed, “You have no idea who we are! We only have like two songs on the Internet! But you’re amazing!”

But there’s much more to their story. One third of the folk-band Mountain Man, Meath has a clear soprano that sounds, I imagine, like a wood nymph luring you through the forest. Nick Sanborn was previously known for his work with the freak-folk group Megafaun, his beats steady and unfussy. And while Sylvan Esso was introduced as a side-project of sorts for the two artists, it looks as though its popularity may surpass their previous efforts. One listen to “Play it Right”, to the aforementioned bass drop, and it’s easy to feel the excitement that’s poised to bubble over.

When Meath and Sanborn come together, it’s an ethereal blend: all drama and dream, sharp edges burned and blurred, pockets of nature tucked deep inside gray cityscapes. Meath’s voice takes the inorganic elements of Sanborn’s bass-heavy synth and injects them with full-bodied humanism: a shock to the heart, blood pumping steady and the chaos of living. The result is a casual tension of catchy hooks and clever vocals, of graduating from college in the woods and moving to the city, of walks through pavement blocks, of basement parties in Southern town homes with the kids in handmade clothes.

The twinkling intro of “Play It Right” immediately gives way to Meath’s gentle croon, the song growing with layers of sporadic tinkering beats, the metallic pulse of synth swirls and the scattered drum machine bopping along, weaving and interjecting and the tune grows grand. The bassline is the kind you feel in your chest, the kind that shakes your heart and curls your toes and echoes in your ears for days after the show. The drama ebbs and flows for the full three minutes, building piece by piece, element by element, before pulling back and stripping the layers until all that’s left is the soft melody of a half-forgotten tune, before growing huge once more.

If I were to indulge a bad (but not entirely incorrect) comparison, it’s like an electronica cover of your favorite rap song. Or a soulful mash-up of a freak-folk DJ set. A better comparison would be music’s trends towards genre-blending electronic-singer-songwriter: of CHVRCHES and Grimes and Lorde etc etc etc. But jazzier. Much jazzier.

Their latest song “Coffee” is perhaps less drama-filled than “Play It Right”, more casual, more laid-back. Meath sings with an offhand coolness, as Sanborn crafts a jazzy backdrop that lulls you into repetition, layering quiet xylophone taps and fuzzy synth and shaky maracas, before taking a melodic turn, before slowly almost to a stop, before pulling in the bucket drum beat, before bringing it all back just to bolster Meath’s simple uttering of “my baby does the hanky-panky” with that bass once again. The smooth transitions between each different element reveal the mastery and confidence with which they craft their music, and hints that we’re in store for a truly intriguing album when it drops this May.



DC rarely gets the recognition it deserves for fostering a quality music scene, so I’m going to start out by saying that Holychild, as a band, began here: Liz Nistico and Louie Diller were GW students when they first started making and writing music together. Which is rad. Because they’ve since graduated, moved to LA, recorded a slew of great pop songs, sparked an impressive amount of music critic buzz, and landed a record deal with Glassnote. Even more rad.

This all happened relatively recently, though. Before, Nistico and Diller were self-producing and self-promoting all of their songs and videos. From the sweeping slow-build of “Watching, Waiting” to the staccato simplicity of “Best Friends”, there’s a certain sense of that DIY-quality to their sound. A tinkering mix of indie-electro-pop that boasts a very clean attention to detail when it comes to production value. Their music is plucky and well-oiled, full of catchy hooks and clever beats.

The band’s latest song “Every Time I Fall” showcases their unique talents, building bit by bit with the tip-tapping of a top-hat and swigs of riffs and reverb, a bass swooping in from time to time, Nistico’s voice oscillating between faraway distortions and full-bodied sing-song. Each element crashes together in the chorus with a sort of laid-back ease, something that I (as a steadfast East Coaster) can only understand as distinctly Californian. Sunsoaked and pleasant, the song bounces along without tension, taking the chilly sting out of electronica and replacing it with effervescence: buoyant and upbeat. The sweetness of Nistico’s voice is cut with a certain brattiness, but does so without ever slipping into whine. Rather, she sings with purpose, enunciating and emphasizing each word, punctuating each verse. But it’s not just a distinct voice that sets holychild apart from the wealth of electro-pop that’s been cropping up lately, but Diller’s drumming: a refreshing set among a crowd of cold drum machine repetition. Not that such beats don’t make appearances elsewhere, but there’s an organic sense to the band’s percussion–just as open to turns and quirks as the melody.

Holychild’s EP “Mind Speak” is out next Tuesday (March 4th) and they’ll be opening for Jukebox the Ghost at the Rock & Roll Hotel in April and you should probably get on board now so you too can boast about how you knew about them before they got big. I plan to.