Esmerine’s Bruce Cawdron and Rebecca Foon hail from Godpseed You! Black Emperor and Thee Silver Mt. Zion, respectively, and rather than depart drastically from that neck of the musical woods, their chamber orchestra-slash-folk band’s style mills about in the same general vicinity. Extended spatial metaphors aside, I saw Rachel’s name-checked at some point, and that’s as good a signpost as any.
La Lechuza is Esmerine’s third album and a tribute to fellow Montreal musician Lhasa de Sela, a.k.a. Lhasa, who died of breast cancer in 2010. With that kind of motive in mind, it’s a difficult record to critique. Any piece of art that deals with grief and celebrates life in an honest and joyful manner deserves some measure of our consideration. And La Lechuza is certainly worth considering. As the group exists in the same basin as Rachel’s, its best songs tend to be the ones that shade overtly into modern composition and minimalism.
The beauty of minimalism is the beauty of something just out of reach, something close but that ultimately evades comprehension. And there’s a few memorable minimal moments on La Lechuza. “Trampolin” flows swiftly and contains a lot of moving parts, creating that slippery just-out-of-one’s-grasp feeling. Unfortunately, these moments are minor parts of the album. “Sprouts,” for example, seems like its more into the idea of rhythm itself than what you can do with rhythms — the way, in minimalism, that different rhythms can alter tiny patterns. It makes me think more of Phill Niblock than Steve Reich, not that that’s bad per se, but in the context of an album that needs more of a pure kind of beauty to propel it along, this acts more like an ellipsis.
This is perhaps the problem with La Lechuza. It is surely pretty and nice and pleasant, but for an album in memoriam — and perhaps this is unfair — it feels like it should be emotionally affecting on a deeper level. I’m not saying it should drown the audience in grief, but the beauty of minimalism is borne out of the same feeling of our inability to grasp death, and Esmerine might have done well to entangle us instead holding us at arm’s length, where all we can do is stare at the band’s sadness.