Sylvester '91 crafts heartfelt pop

by Lindsay Barnes | 1/7/03 6:00am

Pop is not a dirty word.

Some use it to insinuate a song is manufactured or empty of any real creativity. But it takes a special talent to write songs that are so accessible to so many people. It means being able to write about intangible emotions that most people feel but struggle to articulate. At its best, a pop song can evoke an eerie feeling of recognition, as if the author has expressed some of the listener's deepest feelings.

Scott Sylvester '91 has this special talent. While a student at Dartmouth, Sylvester was a member of many musical ensembles, but he insists his real musical education didn't begin until after graduation.

"There wasn't really any folk scene in Hanover. It wasn't until I moved to New York that I started writing my own songs," Sylvester said in a 1997 interview.

For the past ten years, he has been honing his craft as a songwriter on the New York folk circuit. With his third release, "Redemption Center" (available through cdbaby.com), Sylvester has put together an album that holds a mirror up to anyone who has ever fallen in or out of love.

His lyrical style is very direct. These songs don't contain a lot of clever wordplay or poetic imagery, but they do contain a lot of honest human emotion expressed simply yet eloquently.

While Sylvester does pull that off, the downside is that none of the songs are terribly groundbreaking, and they may sound too glossy for some tastes.

On the third track, "All I Need," Sylvester sings, "You're all I need/I was so scared waiting so long/Feel like my soul's been freed/I was so confused; now I understand/What it means to be near someone/You're all I need."

Set to a bright, catchy melody, the song expresses the joy of being in love. It sounds ready to become "our song" for any couple who might listen to it.

This isn't to say the album is all sunshine and roses, as Sylvester explores the other end of the emotional spectrum with equal ability. The fourth track, "It's Over," features an especially sad melody and words like "I'm finding we've lost our way tonight/But even so/Don't ask me why we even try/To come to terms/With a tragedy that takes the best of me/And steals my words."

Accompanied by an arrangement featuring an acoustic guitar, a piano and strings, it's a moving account of the pain that comes with realizing that a relationship has reached its end.

But there are other gems on "Redemption Center" that are a bit more enigmatic in their meaning. The upbeat opening track, "Too High Too Low," is a good get-up-and-go song to listen to in the morning, yet there's a hint of loathing in the lyrics. "Waiting Here For You" could be a powerfully sunny plea for affection, but matters are complicated by lyrics like "Although I never feared you/Things are never what they seem." And the driving "Too Much Anger" sounds like a song of defiance and regret all at once.

Most mysterious of all is the haunting "Annabelle." It's clear the narrator has affection for the title character, but who is Annabelle? Where has she gone? Or is she dead? Top that off with echoing guitars, an upright bass and hypnotic computer noises, and it's a quietly dark composition that manages to be a love song at the same time.

But none of this would work without Sylvester's passionate vocal delivery. His four years as a member of the Aires paid off, as his skill as a singer matches his writing talents. On every track, he uses his powerful tenor as a musical palette of sorts. He knows just the right tones and colors to use in painting each portrait. Whether he's shouting or whispering, it sounds as if Sylvester has fully committed to the material and sincerely believes in what he's singing.

His years as an Aire also show through in his talents at arranging harmonies, some of which are sung by up-and-coming singer-songwriter Lucy Woodward.

It's a wonder that a label hasn't signed him. Given the recent commercial success of "sensitive" singer-songwriters like John Mayer, David Gray and Dashboard Confessional's Chris Carraba, Scott Sylvester could sell a lot of records if he got a marketing campaign behind him. While he says a deal with a label isn't his immediate goal, he does say he's "open for a really good label partnership, be it indie or major."

Labels should be open to Sylvester as well: he has a rare ability to write and perform songs that accurately convey human emotion and also happen get stuck in one's head. "Waiting Here For You," "All I Need" and "Too Much Anger" all sound ready for radio.

That being said, "Redemption Center" isn't for everyone. If you're looking for something edgy, you won't hear it on this album. But you will hear some very well-crafted songs about what it means to be human. You may even hear yourself.