For Esme’s single and album covers have thus far featured shattered confectionery galaxies, and their sound on debut album Sugar breaks the bright whorls and colours of sweet electronic pop into similarly dark-edged, fractal constructs that crackle with energy. The Toronto trio, consisting of vocalist Martha Meredith along with Dave Thiel and Nathan Crook, have made an impression on the Canadian festival circuit and blogosphere (Grayowl Point included), and are about to make their mark on the United States with a stop at CMJ in New York as I write these very words.
The record is lushly produced from the get-go: opener “Be A Light” trades tight overdriven guitar with toothy pads and synth bass burbles as Meredith’s airy voice floats overtop the track’s energy. As a vocalist, she echoes the timbre of recent work by Metric’s Emily Haines, but trades in a more lyrical style that sits a few notches lower on the rock and roll dial. There’s a gravity to her delivery, a sense of purpose and confidence. Even on dreamy, swaying tracks like “Selwyn” (frankly a bit of a letdown despite its scintillating swirls of strings and pads) she is not as overtly treble-forward as synthpop frontwomen like Megan James or Lauren Mayberry, leaving more space for the band to explore. This helps the album’s lyrics take their well-deserved share of the focus: single “Make A Sound,” for example, wraps pointed observations about digitally narcissistic cultural archetypes around a slinky, brooding bassline built for dark dancefloors. When she finally reveals the inspiration behind the album’s title on closing track “In The Night Air,” Meredith puts none too ambiguous a point on it: “so sick of the sugar / that I’m supposed to lay / over everything I say.” The whole song is a compelling, sneaky turnaround of tonight’s-gonna-be-a-good-night pop tropes: it finds its wandering heroine on the late walk home with keys pointed out like claws held against the circling dark.
The sonic cues throughout Sugar are planted firmly in dark progressive new wave of a distinctly 80s vintage, while also playing with influences culled from more current electronic production trends (listen to the mix of distinctly gnarly, industrial opening rhythms and howling reverberation that opens “Franny & Zooey” for instance, and that same song’s use of tubey kick and tom samples pulled straight from classic Roland drum machines that have defined the sound of modern deep house.) Those toothy industrial sounds return on “You” to solid effect, adding layers of shoegaze-inspired fuzz to its crisp discotheque pulse and loping bassline.
Sugar gives fans of modern electronic pop a lot to like. With its focused, literate and unironically committed approach to the genre’s soundscape, It’s as grounded and solid a record as anything that has come out this year from bands who have already graduated to headliner status.
Sugar will be released on October 16.
Top Tracks: “Franny & Zooey,” “Be A Light,” “Make A Sound”
Rating: Proud Hoot (Really Good) + *swoop*