Erica Eso: 192 Album Review

If you’ve scoured the editorial playlists of streaming services lately, especially those with the word “chill” in the title, you’re probably familiar with the so-called Spotify sound. It’s moderately paced, loaded with jazzy major seventh chords, and smooth like the rounded edges of a plastic phone case. While this is the default instrumental palette for those making sure they don’t interrupt your nightly cram session, New York quintet Erica Eso have managed to use the unobtrusiveness of the sound to their advantage, creating hushed alt-R&B which is packed with avant-garde sleight of hand. 192 is their third and best album to date, lifting the synthpop zeitgeist and tinkering with the engine underneath.

Led by composer Weston Minissali, who previously played synthesizer in the quirky prog outfit Cloud Becomes Your Hand, Erica Eso’s songwriting explores the gaps between Western 12-tone intervals. The band uses microtonal keyboards and fretless bass to evoke harmonies that are familiar but subtly skewed. “yolk,” 192‘s second single, revolves around a broken drum-machine beat, composing organ chords note by note. Even Minissali’s verses feel fragmented, their stuttering syllables running from one line to the next. “I’m covered in yolk, the tide is coming / I got so close that an animal screamed,” sings Minissali, contrasting visceral imagery with the band’s airy textures.

“YLME” establishes a similar juxtaposition early on, portraying Erica Eso’s music as an escape from the lingering tragedy of life in the 2020s: “I paint a pretty picture when I’m home / While the jaws of my country shrink back, spewing blood and foam.” Minissali swaps lines back and forth with co-lead vocalist Angelica Bess, entangled voices fade in and out of focus; a sense of uncertainty grows within the band’s bubble of ambient synth. On “Opening Tumble” the band’s tempo ripples beneath the cozy chorus of the song, shifting like a waterbed.

Going into the record’s final stretch, the band holds the reins in its glitchy rhythms to make a celebratory krautrock-inspired sprint to the finish line. On “O Ocean”, Nathaniel Morgan and Rhonda Lowry put down a classic motor groove, giving the rest of the band a clean canvas to splash with steamy sound design. It’s the record’s most stable tune, with only two short detours in the downward half of the time, but it’s a deserved break from their more cerebral songcraft – a chance for Minissali and fellow keyboardist Lydia Velichkovski to use their unused patches and riffs in a single cathartic outburst.

Two-part coda “Acclaimed Evacuation” continues this quest for early ’70s prog rock, but Erica Eso clings a little too much to the grandeur of their influences, sacrificing their loose, exploratory appeal. The first movement, a quasi-orchestral interlude, is unusually formal for the group. The creative power of “Pt. 2,” it’s almost cinematic, laced with pizzicato strings and fluttering notes akin to telegraph messages.

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