SJ Esau Small Vessels

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Styles: indie rock, indie electronic, experimental
Others: Heavy Vegetable, WHY?, Thinking Fellers Union Local 282

Like being let into a friend's bedroom studio while he or she pores over partially and/or cryptically labeled tapes containing songs and experiments at varying states of completion, SJ Esau's sophomore effort Small Vessels has the initially intoxicating feeling of being let in on a secret treasure trove of restless musical creativity. Untitled bits of sonic debris mix with false starts of songs; hushed passages give way to lush arrangements of vocal and instrumental beauty bordering on the epic; and unexpected transitions and breaks suddenly expand or shrink the dynamic space in which they exist.

What's more, when the songs do manifest, they're of considerable quality. It's hard to pin down one way of describing the genre(s) they effect. Being on the anticon. label, one might assume that a hip-hop quotient is involved, but other than spurts of sampling and looping, that really doesn't factor. Instead, SJ Esau (nee Sam Wisternoff) treads more in the waters of indie rock, but in the most wide-ranging sense. The melancholy "Bastard Eyes" has the lilt and sway of Low playing a sea chanty. "Human Annoyed" has the tense, boisterous, yet restrained, stripped-down acoustic sound of Neutral Milk Hotel. And "I Threw a Wobbly" has a chaotic abandon in fits and starts that most closely recall early-period Butthole Surfers or Cows.

Again, on first listen, this mix is wholly gratifying. It's a real adventure for the invested listener to keep stumbling upon unexpected sonic disruptions. However, the total experience suffers upon repeated spins. With only a loose core of clever wordplay to hold it together, it's frustrating to not really have any definable mood or mode in which to understand the music. While each snippet works in its own way, it's hard to envision a time that I would naturally seek such a mix of sounds for my own enjoyment. Perhaps this is SJ Esau's way of acknowledging the return of the single? But then why put this out as an album? The answer, for me, is in that initial feeling produced: being a member of his small club of listeners. But with talent like this, one can only hope that he soon puts together something more cohesive to eventually expand that small club into something (deservedly) bigger.

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