On his second album for Anticon, Bristolian rock collagist SJ Esau, or Sam Wisternoff, tightens his playful, genre-bounding compositions even as he brings in a cast of collaborators to amplify his singular vision. While 2006’s Wrong Faced Cat Feed Collapse smartly played to its own contrasts, Small Vessel melds its diverse moods and styles into a buoyant, bold and cohesive whole, making for an album both utterly post-modern and curiously epic despite its humble means.
From a tics-and-all series of vocal drills chopped into rhythmic bits, “Frustrating” is born. The album’s first song quickly congeals into cresting waves of orchestral pop by way of little more than guitars and drums, with Sam spinning humorous images about obsessive behavior in his lilting croon (the chorus triumphantly promising to ring “Pavlov’s bell ’til the dog dehydrates”). Everything plays bigger and brighter this time, with even the 18-second title track sounding grandly choral as it runs up against the bouncing pastoral sounds of the turntable- and viola-laden “Bastard Eyes.” “I Threw A Wobbly” tosses bells, trumpet, soloing guitar and what sounds like the disembodied bark of Cee-Lo Green into the Wisternoff blender, and somehow it all comes out smooth and near danceable. Next, “Under Certain Things” lays down a warm, slowing bedrock of static and acoustics, as Sam and Charlotte Nichols (who also plays cello here, and on Portishead’s latest) sing about what could be bugs hiding under bricks, but what feels like some fleeting aspect of the human condition. And on “Bubblehead,” Sam belts out the woes of a claustrophobic shut-in over surging, sample-strewn folk.
Small Vessel is full of songs that are wholly pretty without shying from their disparate origins, and lyrics that loom large even as they focus on earthly details. A musical accomplishment in under two minutes, “Ruddy Spark” begins in collage, breaks into Fog-like, hard jazz-inflected rock, and closes in a blaze of surf-punk, while “Depth Perception Lack” builds a miniature mountain out of a typewriter beat, propulsive guitars, an unexpected Mt. Eerie-style chorus of ominous voices, and barroom piano. And though “Human Annoyed,” which plays like a sunnier Aidan Moffat B-side, never identifies the source of its internal angst, and “Slate” lobs comedic jabs at an unnamed offender, SJ’s wry outlook is relatable, even inviting.
After a final interlude of wordless, stark sound collage, closer “What Happen'd” begins with a slow strum. As the song unfolds into an unhurried pop, Sam sings, “I thought it was some kind of a plan/I thought and I thought/Some kind of design I had/But I forgot, I forgot.” He doesn’t sound wistful or worried, and he shouldn’t. This is what SJ Esau does best: plowing through sounds, moods and impulses, separating, sorting and piling until there’s a fully fleshed and cockeyed composition grinning at his back. Thus, Small Vessel stands on its own two feet, as Sam Wisternoff’s carry him off into the muddled sunset.
* free immediate download of mp3 files with vinyl purchase of this product