Soul to Solex


Solex vs. the Hitmeister

Remember that scene in The Stepford Wives when our housemaking heroine's "thyroid condition" goes haywire and she gets wicked with the kitchen knives? Well, what if she were cutting up records? Listening to the "band" Solex (a.k.a. Elisabeth Esselink) is like watching a Stepford wife look for an escape hatch in a Salt-N-Pepa song. The music on her remarkable Solex vs. the Hitmeister is pugnacious musique plastique--a funky, clunky pastiche of regurgitated leftovers that is also one of the neater examples of pop arcana to come out this year.

Esselink made Hitmeister--smithed during an eight-day marathon of slacker production--by culling strange sounds from obscure records she found lying around the Amsterdam record store where she clerks. Next, she processed them through outdated, barely functional '70s sampling equipment. The resulting mix rendered her music's source material totally indiscernible, like a print image transferred to Silly Putty. The primary loop in a song called "Waking Up with Solex" sounds a bit like slide guitar, but it might just as easily be a disabled car alarm. Not a bad little aside in an era when most John Lee Hooker fans drive Saabs but not much to go on if you're looking for musical roots.

Hitmeister's happiest song, the ecstatic, funky yelp-along "Solex All Licketysplit," is where James Brown's "Funky Drummer" does the dog with Cibo Matto's "Know Your Chicken." On the surface, it's a pap paradise. Still, the song's lyric uncoils a kiss-off to an imaginary (male) manager-nemesis. "As soon as I get a paycheck/You want me to make it high-tech/And to bleach my flecks," our allegedly oppressed pop star bellows.

And her bellow is more than convincing. Esselink has mastered both the riot-grrl yowl and the comely coo of the vulnerable nymph. Throughout Hitmeister she turns these voices inside out, distorts and splits them so as to give us a one-woman Cibo Matto. Or a post-pop Sybil. At times Esselink's personae suggest one of the stranger girl-group extrapolations this side of RuPaul. The messy music has been compared to a robot--only a robot that stumbles. Imagine the Go-Go's--sorry, a Go (Jane Wiedlin maybe)--as George Orwell would have her, heels over head with a thyroid condition nagging like a two-day hangover.

Consider "Solex Feels Lucky," a song that reads like the Shirelles' "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" by way of Laurie Anderson's "O, Superman." It's one of the unluckiest songs I've ever heard. "Lucky" is putatively a love song, but love here is "somewhat unnatural." Our heroine's fear of intimacy is reflected by a machine-like un-groove; the emotional space that the Shirelles filled with a skylarking string section is instead stuffed with the sounds of loose springs and grinding gears.

Esselink's backup singers (the Esslettes, I guess) are a chorus of moaning androids. "It, would, be/bet-ter/if we/just wrote" she "sings" against their din, spitting out each new lyric with assembly-line diction. "There's Solex On the Run" has another Frankenstein groove, and it finds Esselink eating her dinner in the hall as her boyfriend lingers in her room, "waiting to have a real good time." I'm going to posit that the Boy X who's got Solex on the run never has that "good time." Esselink finishes her microwave dinner, slouches back into her room, and alphabetizes a few drum 'n' bass 12 inches, as X sits on her bed, pensive and limp.

I'm also gonna assume that Esselink--or her robotic twin--revels in these awkward moments, the B-side (in)versions of girlish romance. Like her Matador-label foremother Liz Phair, Esselink writes songs that thrill in turning emotional dead zones into psychodramas. But the mood of Esselink's invention is an industrial revolution removed from Phair's folk poetry. This is indie rock. And trip hop. You can hear the Shirelles. And Laurie Anderson. Hitmeister is a Choose-Your-Own-Record record.

The coolest way to construe Solex is to think of it as a new kind of "world music." By taking obscure sounds and turning them into unknowable glop, by being a Dutchwoman who sounds like two Japanese women, by existing more as an idea than a band, this slack Dutchwoman is a complete anomaly. She could be sending us signals from Seattle, Sweden, Singapore.

Other groups from the outer stations of the pop-music world go far out of their way to show us (and the English) just how ironically they can recast our tired old rock 'n' roll genres. A Swedish band called Komeda takes the sound of the Talking Heads and tweaks it to sound twice as smart as it did in '77. Parisians Daft Punk revamp dull disco and get played at Paisley Park. An Argentinean band called the Fabulous Cadillacs plays ska, punk rock, heavy metal, and Dave Brubeck--usually at the same time.

Solex does nothing we can put out finger on. Yet this accidental rock 'n' roll might have more to say about the way pop music will sound in the rock 'n' roll next-world than Solex--or anyone else--might guess.

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