Astonishing, bright, intellectual pop music from Esa Shields, making his debut with his Ovum Caper (GR2031) LP which has found its spiritual home on the fun-loving Gagarin Records label in Germany…Shields’ watertight production sheen is, I imagine, something that would appeal personally to label boss Felix Kubin, as he’s exhibited that same attention to production craft himself over the years. Speaking of years, it’s apparently taken best part of ten years for Esa Shields to assemble this work and bring it to the point of publication, assembling all the instrumental and vocal tracks solo in his home studio in Liverpool.
His singing voice will be the thing you remember above all else – described as “androgynous” by most reviewers, and could easily be mistaken for a female vocalist at fifteen paces…a sort of souped-up member of The Ronettes after inhaling helium…and as you listen to each nook and cranny of the vocal line, there’s a sort of squeaky emotional resonance that’s very hard to pin down. It’s as though all his heart’s responses had this rather lubricious undercurrent, even if he’s just describing the contents of his fridge. I wish I had more time to study the lyrics. In fact I’d settle for being provided with a printed lyric sheet. Apparently, his songs are elusive and obscure, using poetic turns and mixed metaphors to disguise heartache, or adding distance to real-life situations through symbols and third-person voices. Such obliqueness promises well, and I’m all in favour of pop songs that disguise direct experience. The cover art (and title) opens another dimension altogether, sex as a slightly dangerous romp involving naked and masked dominatrices riding on spherical Bosch-like monsters that resemble inflated testicles.
The other aspect where Esa Shields scores a healthy 8 out of 10 is in the record production department, producing compacted mini-symphonies using what I expect are mostly Casio keyboards, guitars, and digital rhythm boxes, and transcending the limitations of all this synthetic equipment through the sheer strength of overdubbing, layering, and ingenious arrangements. If Gagarin won’t accept his next album, he should try and find a sympathetic ear at Japan’s Noble Records label. Through working hard at this home studio craft, Esa has earned all the usual plaudits and column inches that drop names like Brian Wilson and Delia Derbyshire and attract catch-all terms like “space-age pop”.
On early spins, I found myself carping about the lack of strong melodies and catchy hooks, but in fact Esa does have a clever knack for spinning a lot of mileage out of his quirky and cunning melodies, effecting clever switches in mood and dramatic tone just by the change of a single root note or switch of an instrument. I get the impression he plans his tunes in short bite-size pieces, a single bar at a time; this strategy enables him to deliver unexpected twists and turns within small, restrictive spaces. Each song is assembled like a mosaic, from tiny well-formed musical and lyrical phrases.