Breath from Another, the 1998 debut from Esthero, has been vastly overlooked by pop culture in the past. Although it has since been praised as a trip-hop classic, its success was overshadowed by its relatively poor record sales and limited airplay.
The album never charted, however, it would receive a Gold certification from the RIAA in 2005, for selling more than 100,000 copies. It was even nominated for the Polaris Heritage Prize in 2016, for the “Best Album from 1996-2005” but lost in both categories, losing the public vote to The Funeral (2004) by Arcade Fire, and the jury vote to La Llorona (1997) by Lhasa de Sela.
Before working with such hit-makers as The Black Eyed Peas, Kanye West, The Weeknd, Canadian singer-songwriter Jenny-Bea Englishman and producer Martin “Doc” McKinney worked together as Esthero—a name which Englishman later adopted that is based on the protagonist from Sylvia Plath‘s semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar.
It’s a surprisingly appropriate name for the pair as their first and only full-length album together will often get rather dark and dreary. It opens with the title track, “Breath from Another” which unexpectedly features a clip of the notorious “rape scene” from the 1972 film Deliverance. Even though the album contained explicit and sexual content, it was not required to have a “Parental Advisory” label.
Breath from Another gets progressively more light-hearted as Englishman captivates listeners with her sultry vocals, which at times can feel reminiscent of the sophisti-pop sound of Sade, mixed in with subtle downtempo melodies. The lead single, “Heaven Sent” achieved moderate success with a broken string beat and an enchanting rhythm that helped it chart at No. 4 on the Billboard‘s Hot Dance Breakout Maxi-Singles Sales.
“That Girl” was originally slated to be released as the pair’s second single, but the record company pulled the plug because they were disappointed with the sales. A music video was released three years after the album, directed by Patrick Hoelck, which features Esthero as an extra-terrestrial living in a containment-free bubble. The video is positively weird, but it pairs perfectly.
Some other noteworthy tracks featured on the album include: “Country Livin’ (The World I Know)” which has a sort of ‘90s nostalgia to it; “Half A World Away,” a funk-infused latin melody; and “Superheros,” a track that might have been so far ahead of its time that you can hear the early foundation of more modern alternative-R&B artists like Kelela and Solange.
The album draws to a close with “Swallow Me,” which fades off into five minutes of silence before it comes back with the hidden track, “Anywayz, Pt. 2.” The track runs the album an additional 15 minutes in all, but it’s well worth the wait.
While one can easily draw comparisons between Esthero and a band such as Portishead, the album definitely insists on reaching for a more “left-of-center” type of sound which at times can feel almost forced. Nevertheless, it is truly an essential composition for any true fan of the trip-hop genre.
RATING: 4 / 5
LISTEN: ESTHERO – ‘BREATH FROM ANOTHER’