One-woman encyclomedia

It all started with a girl, her old sampling machine and an even older eight-track recorder. The girl, Amsterdam-based musician and secondhand record store owner Elisabeth Esselink, was soon to become the recording artist currently known as Solex. "I always go to these auctions every week to buy CDs and one day there were no good CDs," says Esselink of one fateful afternoon in January 1997.

"But there was an eight-track and a vintage sampler. I raised my hand and got them."

So what did she do with these things? Esselink used a unique resource. "We've got a huge pile of unsellable records in the store. For me the challenge was then to search for very good segments of very bad CDs," says Solex.

"It's much more difficult to sample the middle of a song, so most of the samples are from the beginning or intro, when there's only one instrument playing. So it wasn't such a depressing thing to work through all these bad records," she says.

What emerged from all that digging is a beguiling debut album, Solex vs. the Hitmeister. It's a series of lyrically, impressionistic snapshots of electric, beat-and-sound-driven pop music apparently taken from Esselink's everyday life. The titles are simple: "Waking Up With Solex," "When Solex Stood There," "There's a Solex on the Run," etc. The titles may seem diary-ish on the surface, but the lyrics boast a humor and a poetic sense that is anything but throwaway. Better still, Esselink disregards typical verse-chorus-verse structure when laying down her vocal lines, relying on the song's melody and natural rhythm to dictate the diction.

"I don't really care if the melody line stops in the middle of the sentence. I'll just pick up the sentence in the next part," says Esselink.

In "Rolex By Solex," over a breakbeat and a strategically wielded, cool and aloof guitar line, Solex breaks in with, "He gave a coy smile when/she/ paid for/two rooms and one connecting/door. All yours." The words come as introverted punchlines. Later, the clandestine vibe they've so worked for is undermined by the echoing beat-fadeout chimed over with the postscript, "she made a crack/about his fatness/ and his hairy back." It's a sneaky way of making the everyday sublime and vice versa. But it's only half the appeal of Solex.

The substantial other side of the sound equation is the geography of sound Esselink has created from the crates and the live instrument translations of some of those samples. There are block-knocking beats, urgent trumpets and an orchestra of the unconventional from the world of sound. It's all pieced together with such care as to transcend the sometimes sloppy, pop culture feeding frenzies of somewhat comparable work of Cibo Mato or Pizzicato Five. There's also enough of a sense of fun and wide-eyed innocence to keep Solex's music safe from the painful introspection and darkness of the likes of Portishead.

This week, when Esselink's "Solex Plays Live" chapter opens for Detroit audiences, expect not a faceless digital crew painstakingly recreating every sound on Solex vs. the Hitmeister. Rather, Esselink says, Solex live is a three-piece with "a bigger sound, more filled up," featuring herself on keyboards, sampling and singing. She adds a guitar player and live drummer to tackle the album's sound-rich material. And, since Esselink knows full well that Dutch music audiences put the "fanatic" back in "fan," don't be afraid to throw down and dance a little, either. Chris Handyside is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]