By Jim Schutze
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It's that old question about toy and mannequins and falling trees: Do they talk when no one is looking? Add record stores to that list; Elisabeth Esselink can make them sing well after closing time. The inventory is her instrument, and while as much has been said about any DJ with a pair of 1200 and an 808 emulator, with her it's dang near literal. Esselink co-owns an Amsterdam record store whose unsellables she strip-mined for vs. the Heatmeister, the 1998 album from her one-woman sampledelic orchestra Solex. The results were a haunting, melodic cut-up pop record driven by an art-brut rhythmic sense and oddly seductive Dutch-accented mumbling.
But she's evolved on her excellent new album Pick Up, and the results are both smoother and stranger than her strong debut. It's stranger because the disc was reportedly constructed out of field recordings of live bands she assembled in her basement, and smoother because Esselink traded in the old eight-track for a digital, 16-track setup. And the songs reflect the change: What was once somewhat herky-jerky now glides together like oiled glass. Her compositional sense has grown by leaps even as her songs still jumble along; they no longer feel so much like sewn-together scraps. The title track mines the sort of subtle juggernaut vibe Tricky used to be able to do in his sleep (now, he just puts listeners to sleep), while Esselink mumbles things like "got me on my knees/I never hear her say/wish that I could stay" -- the sort of amorphous yammering that screams English is not my first language! Her vocals are too buried and accented to impart explicit meaning, but they're nonetheless critical to Solex's overall machine-soul.
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Esselink's real talent is hiding the seams, making these bits flow into songs so fully realized they never sound cobbled together, conveying swoony pop at every turn. "Randy Costanza" is a loving tribute to a Pittsburgh cartoonist/rocker, complete with Esselink cooing "I'm confused/do-do-do/do-do-do." "Athens, OH" could have fallen off a Guided By Voices album, and "The Burglars Are Coming!" is swing music for the year 3000. "Another Tune Like 'Not Fade Away'" has a completely inexplicable title -- what's with the Buddy Holly reference? -- but its buzzing fire-alarm riff and fall-apart rhythm track are pretty cool nonetheless.
And while her methods may scream pretentious, Esselink's never sacrificed a sense of fun: While folks like Portishead rely on somewhat severe melodrama to impart their music, and the occasionally insufferable DJ Spookys of the world want you to study their work as much as enjoy it, Solex keeps everything fun (even the strange, soundtracky ballad "Five Star Shamberg" seems to have a heart of fluff). Pick Up's songs flow in and out of each other, arranged and sequenced so well -- her found sounds occasionally show up in more than one track, implying a startling sense of compositional continuity -- that the album is much more than the sum of its parts.