Belgian stereotypes are mostly culinary-centric. The dudes have got sweet, rich beer, powdered sugary waffles, and some lovely fries. And let’s be honest, all of these things are great, but they don’t exactly speak to sound. So-knowing that it was the work of Belgian GaÃ«tan Vandewoude-when I picked up Isbells‘ self-titled debut with beer-drenched waffles on my mind, I didn’t really know what to expect sonically. Though, I guess on a subconscious level I had a perfect hypothesis, because by some strange associative mind trick, the thing sounds exactly like powdered sugar washed down with some wheat ale-if that makes any sense, which it probably doesn’t.
It boils down to the syrupy sweet sound of Vandewoude’s delicate, wispy coo harmonizing with itself and washing over almost afro-tinged folk guitar work that finds itself somewhere in the strange space between frantic and subtle, all hooked up to ethereal atmospherics. Upbeat, fluttering hammers and pulls alternate with slower, blossoming finger picking and lush strumming to build a solid folk base for the rest of the vaporous sounds that pile up. Though it comes across as a light affair at first, this is both a lyrically woeful and instrumentally dense record, with a lot of subtlety sneaking by.
Every track bubbles to the brim with a sound as smooth and refreshing as a cold pint, with enough subtle roughness around the thin edges to toughen up the record and provide just the right dose of harsh, weighty undertones. Whether that roughness be the squealing of fingers along the fretboard, the buzzing vibration of strings set close to a mic, dark synth tones, or a found background noise, they are so muted that they perfectly accent the record’s otherwise cool, fluttery aura, ensuring the record doesn’t sound candy-coated but also not compromising its cleanly crafted beauty. Think Bon Iver minus the anguish and a whole lot of high-fructose corn syrup.
Reverb-drenched, acoustic plucking and vocals pair with occasional ornamental electric guitar (“As Long As it Takes”), tribal drumming (“Reunite”), woodwinds, Twin Peaks synths, chimes, and whatever else makes any sense. Though the record is consistent in its method, on each track Vandewoude fools around with all sorts of auxiliary instrumentation–usually different from the one before-crafting an eclectic, yet unified sound that varies as it progresses but maintains a perfect sense of cohesiveness.
With his multi-tracked stinging falsetto and through his consistently stunning, lo-fi fingerpicked balladry, Vandewoude mulls over the future of mankind, the earth’s inevitable environmental demise, the dreams of his children, and his hopes and fears. At times, vocally, he recalls Justin Vernon in his approach, at others Neil Young, sometimes a less troubled Elliott Smith, and even Antlers’ Peter Silberman in spots. “What have we done to the earth we’ve all known?/Where do we go from here?/Who’s responsible?/Look at the mirror on the wall/What do I tell my child?” he bemoans on the opening track. Not exactly as sweet as the record’s immediate sound.
The subject matter may not be so sugary, but Vandewoude tricks you into licking up every last drop, until you realize the philosophical mess you’ve just devoured. Drink up fast, let it sit, and don’t regurgitate. Like Kevin Barnes taught us, it doesn’t have to sound heavy to have some emotional weight.