If you’ve spent any time recently poking through streaming services’ editorial playlists—particularly ones with the word “chill” in the title—you’re likely acquainted with the so-called Spotify sound. It’s moderately paced, laden with jazzy major 7th chords, and smooth as the rounded edges of a plastic phone case. Though it’s the default instrumental palette for those taking care not to interrupt your late-night cram session, New York quintet Erica Eso have managed to use the sound’s unobtrusiveness to their advantage, crafting hushed alt-R&B that’s replete with avant-garde sleight of hand. 192 is their third and best album to date, lifting the synth-pop zeitgeist’s hood and tinkering with the engine underneath.
Led by composer Weston Minissali, who previously played synthesizer in quirky prog outfit Cloud Becomes Your Hand, Erica Eso’s songwriting probes the gaps between Western 12-tone intervals. The band uses microtonal keyboards and fretless bass to conjure harmonies that are familiar but subtly askew. “Yolk,” 192’s second single, orbits a fractured drum-machine beat, assembling organ chords note by note. Even Minissali’s verses feel fragmented, their stuttering syllables spilling from one line to the next. “I’m covered in yolk, the tide’s comin’ in/I got so close an animal screamed,” Minissali sings, contrasting visceral imagery against the band’s airy textures.
“Y.L.M.E.” establishes a similar juxtaposition early on, depicting Erica Eso’s music as an escape from the sustained tragedy of life in the 2020s: “I paint a pretty picture when I’m at home/While my nation’s jaws recoil, spit blood and foam.” Minissali trades lines back and forth with co-lead singer Angelica Bess, intertwined voices fading 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 undulates beneath the song’s cozy refrain, shifting like a waterbed.
Entering the record’s final stretch, the band reins in its glitchy rhythms to make a celebratory, krautrock-inspired sprint to the finish line. On “O Ocean,” Nathaniel Morgan and Rhonda Lowry lay down a classic motorik groove, providing a clean canvas for the rest of the band to splash with vaporous sound design. It’s the record’s steadiest tune, only making two brief detours into pitched-down half time, but it’s an earned break from their more cerebral songcraft—an opportunity for Minissali and fellow keyboardist Lydia Velichkovski to unload their unused patches and riffs in a single cathartic burst.
Two-part coda “Acclaimed Evacuation” continues this foray into early-’70s prog rock, but Erica Eso adhere a bit too closely to the grandiosity of their influences, sacrificing their loose, exploratory appeal. The first movement, a quasi-orchestral interlude, is uncharacteristically formal for the group. Blunting the creative force of “Pt. 2,” it’s almost cinematic, peppered with pizzicato strings and fluttering tones that resemble telegraph messages.