Music

SJ Esau: Small Vessel

SJ Esau mastermind Sam Wisternoff is truly becoming a master of his craft and that is evident on Small Vessel, his second Anticon release.


SJ Esau

Small Vessel

Label: Anticon
US Release Date: 2008-06-24
UK Release Date: 2008-06-23
Amazon
iTunes

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.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image