April 14 marked the 20th anniversary of the release of a stunning album, one that pushed artistic boundaries and easily combined seemingly disparate musical styles into a hypnotic concoction of electronic artistry. The album is Esthero’s debut LP, “Breath from Another.” If you’ve never heard of it, you’re far from alone: it never made waves commercially, although it did make Esthero (a duo consisting of Jenny-Bea Englishman and Doc McKinney) into critics’ darlings, and deservedly so: the record effortlessly flits between styles, and sounds just as unusual now as it did two decades ago. Jazz, trip-hop, rap, pop, and alternative rock each get a turn in the driver’s seat, but despite the record’s constant variations, it never sounds unfocused.
Opening the record is the title track, a thumping serving of trip-hop whose bassline recalls Garbage’s alt-rock classic “#1 Crush.” Englishman whispers breathlessly as a hip-hop beat pounds away behind her.
All of that changes with the chorus, though: her vocals suddenly soar, as she warns, “Don’t compromise what’s gold/For the soul you never sold.” The beat undergoes a similar transformation, with a Middle-Eastern influence on full display. For the remaining three minutes, the track continues to toggle between the two sounds, but it never sounds jarring (although the rap verse from Meesah & Shug could be comfortably omitted).
Next up is a murder ballad, “Heaven Sent.” An ominous flamenco guitar opens the track before a subtle rap beat swoops in and Englishman expresses remorse over her behavior. Then, like the preceding track, the chorus ushers in a major transformation: the gentle guitar is replaced by loud electric ones worthy of a metal song, and Esthero begins melodically yelling the lyrics. Dramatic strings and a mournful piano make guest appearances in the bridge before the climatic finale, as Esthero cries, “Everyone has to, gets to die” with enough force to make Shirley Bassey green with envy.
Although “Sent” is probably the record’s best offering, the next two songs are bullseyes too. “Anywayz” is a mostly instrumental, highly experimental combination of pianos, guitars, and mumbling that sounds destined for a futuristic lounge (the name “Cosmic Cocktails” comes to mind). The jazz influence continues with the record’s third and final single, “That Girl,” on which Englishman sings of her insecurity and imagines passersby mocking her: “One of these things just doesn’t belong here … Hey, look at that girl!”
After the first four tracks, it seems unlikely that the record can possibly match such highs; however, it continues to deliver, although it grows more subtle and sensual as it progresses. “Country Livin’ (The World I Know)” is a soft-spoken, orchestrally augmented venture into trip-hop that finds Englishman longing for a faster-paced world and a faithful lover. “Just look at those stars!” she wistfully marvels.
Appropriately, the next song is a 44-second interlude titled “Flipher Overture,” a James Bond-esque orchestral piece that could easily be adapted into a full-length song. Its placement on the album seems symbolic, dividing the record into two halves. Whereas the first half was built on impassioned, beat-heavy tunes that could soundtrack a spy movie or a horror film, the second half mostly flows together, with an even loungier approach.
The one exception to this is “Half a World Away,” the tale of an emotionless love affair. The percussive accompaniment and Englishman’s stunning harmonies make the song seem more destined for alternative radio than for lounges. After that red herring, though, the second half gets slinkier and sounds like a late-night electronic overture. “Superheroes” and the fittingly titled “Lounge” seem suited for a nighttime drive or an intimate evening.
Closing out the album is fan favorite “Swallow Me,” on which Esthero get their Bjork on as Englishman prosthelytizes about music. “Long as I have my voice, I don’t need arms to hold me,” she insists. A gorgeous orchestra and an industrial beat back her up for six minutes, and with that dramatic flourish, the album comes to a close. (Or does it? Hidden after five minutes of silence lies an even more experimental, slightly strident rendition of “Anywayz.” It’s the closest that the record comes to a misstep).
The closest the duo ever came to the mainstream was in summer 1998, when MTV began airing the video for “Heaven Sent.” The clip was nothing short of stunning: a Dali-inspired animated short, it’s in the running for the title of “Most-Surreal Music Video Ever Aired on MTV.” There was a video for “That Girl,” too, depicting Englishman as a martian stranded in a see-through enclosure in downtown Toronto, although the video never really took off, perhaps because programmers weren’t in the mood for jazz and felt that they’d filled their creativity quota with the duo’s preceding single. In 1999, Esthero even snagged a nomination for “Best Alternative Album” at the Canadian Juno music awards, though they lost to Rufus Wainwright’s eponymous debut LP.
Despite its abundant charm, “Breath from Another” never launched Esthero into the pop stratosphere, and after the duo’s label – Work Group – was bought out in 1999, Esthero was dropped and McKinney jumped ship. Englishman took up the Esthero moniker and continues to release music to this day – in the mid-90s, she scored two top 10 hits on the U.S. Dance Club Songs chart, and in 2012 she notched an entry on the Canadian Hot 100 with “Never Gonna Let You Go,” a delightfully off-kilter tale of love and obsession. Last December, she even released a politically tinted cover of “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” Although theirs isn’t a household name, Esthero’s first album is a pitch-perfect soundtrack for late nights, space-age lounges, and dance clubs. In a world of monotonous, hook-laden pop songs, it’s a breath of fresh air.