Like Quannum and Stones Throw, Anticon is known for its roster of genre-bending emcees and producers who are rooted in hip-hop but never let that pigeonhole their output. And all three labels have opened their doors to artists falling outside the spectrum of boom-bap. Examples include Quannum’s Curumin, Stones Throw’s James Pants, and Anticon’s SJ Esau, whose latest, Small Vessel, is an excellent chamber pop collage that never takes itself too seriously or loses its pace.
Before joining Anticon in 2007 to release Wrong Face Cat Feed Collapse, SJ Esau, or simply Sam Wisternoff, was churning out albums on his own. And even further back, he was a young emcee from Bristol, England receiving critical acclaim for his freestyle skills. And when I write young, I mean he was a mere 10 years old when he got signed by Three Stripe Records. But he and his older brother hung up their microphones two years later, trading in their battle rhymes for guitars and turntables, respectively. After several other bands and solo efforts, Wisternoff finally found his sound in SJ Esau.
But he also makes sure to incorporate hip-hop into his music. He might be more slowcore, like Damon and Naomi, then backpacker, but both genres have equally and heavily influenced his music. And that sound has been fully refined and realized on Small Vessel, an album that cuts in and out of tracks like a bored listener fiddling with a transistor radio. Each song represents a turn of the dial to find something new. But there’s one problem with that analogy and it’s the fact that I highly doubt someone playing this moody record could grow tired of anything on here.
Right from the album opener – an untitled, seven-second track featuring what sounds like a baby’s voice put through a glitch machine – you can tell this isn’t going to be just another indie-pop album. Even though “Frustrating” is a beautiful piece of orchestral pop, the song is not as grandiose as you might expect. It doesn’t reach as far as one of Sufjan Stevens’s epics, but it comes close. And then it slams right into the title-track, an 18-second sea shanty that is perfect in its subtlety. Sure, maybe an extended version would have been nice, but Wisternoff throws everything he has into this quick teaser.
Through the end of the album, you are hit with a barrage of tracks that build upon what has been laid down with “Frustrating”. “I Threw a Wobbly” comes across like a scrambling swarm of bees playing pop music. Wisternoff’s collages of bright electric guitars over smashing drums and chugging acoustic guitars on this track are as brilliantly focused as they are chaotic. As an aside, I would like to point out that the percussion filling this record is phenomenal. The snares and symbols blast through each track like balls of fury, adding more depth and atmosphere.
Another standout is the fuzzy last track “What Happen’d”. It kicks off like a gentle Elliott Smith ballad with Wisternoff crooning lyrics of confusion before transforming into a noisy, feedback-driven mess of static. “Under Certain Things” is perhaps the least meandering song on Small Vessel. It’s a gorgeous duet between Wisternoff and collaborator Charlotte Nichols, who also plays cello and was featured on Portishead’s Third. But above them all is “Bastard Eyes”. Words cannot truly describe the beauty of this piece, though it would be an egregious error to not point out the wonderfully manipulated violin loop.
As strong as this album is as a whole and as much as Wisternoff has become a master of his craft, there are a few shortcomings holding him back. For instance, some tracks go too far off the beaten path before returning to solid ground. But one could argue that such an experimental approach to songwriting is what makes Small Vessel stand above its contemporaries. Rather than follow the formula, Wisternoff took it, re-shaped it, and made it his own. All of that aside, his vocals and lyrics are still not strong enough, though they are getting damn close. If he continues this killer streak of his, the next SJ Esau album could very well be a masterpiece.
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