Nick Sanborn wants you to know that he is putting in work.
At the start of "Blue Zipper," the fifth and final track from Penumbra, the debut EP of the Sylvan Esso co-founder and producer under the name Made of Oak, he loops a set of quick, shallow breaths over a beat that hits like a heavy, slightly heightened pulse. The sound serves as the song's nearly overlooked undercarriage, momentarily disappearing beneath synthesizer whorls and snare drum snaps only to reappear. It's like a farewell flare meant to signal that he isn't simply pushing buttons or depositing Sylvan Esso scraps as some stopgap set here. Made of Oak is, he says without so much as a word, a long-term and serious commitment.
Indeed, the length of Sanborn's dossier tends to get lost in the meteoric ascension of Sylvan Esso, a rightly popular act sometimes regarded as late-arriving dilettantes. It is true that both Sanborn and singer Amelia Meath spent time in folk-focused projects before turning to Sylvan Esso's sequencers. But Sanborn has sculpted beats and produced electronic music since at least 2005, when he first adopted the Made of Oak handle. Yes, he augmented Megafaun's folk excursions with bass, performs with radiant post-rock crew Collections of Colonies of Bees, made audacious indie rock with Headlights and Decibully and stands in the background for Sylvan Esso's less brash read on the Sleigh Bells dynamic. But he didn't wake up yesterday with an Ableton manual and pockets full of patch cables.
This is clear throughout Penumbra, an elegant exercise built from a diverse lot of techniques. Sanborn shows skill with moody ambient pieces (see the opening, title track) and phosphorescent collages of drone and samples (as with "Penultra (When I See You)"). The corkscrew bass of "Pinebender" flirts tastefully with EDM's heft, while "Blue Zipper" floats through a trap music grid. There are moments of harsh noise and halcyon acoustics, music box melodies and wide-eyed dub lines.
On Penumbra, though, Sanborn does feel like a reactant in need of a counterpart to help spark the right reaction. For most of Sanborn's career, he has been an expert collaborator, going so far as to stage a concert called "Lend Me Your Voice" at Duke in 2013. Here, the intentional absence of other input is deliberate in process but damning because something's missing. You conjure voices to be added as you listen: Majical Cloudz perhaps on the title track, the Dirty Projectors' Amber Coffman on "Pinebender," rappers Well$ and Professor Toon on "Side Rides," with whom a remix has already been made. Or you may hear another producer, stepping in to add more wallop (à la Hudson Mohawke and Lunice as TNGHT) or more texture (see the latter releases of Growing).
Maybe that's the point—to show Sanborn's varied abilities by implying his versatility. If so, Penumbra is a pleasant little demo reel, an advertisement worth enjoying.