Label: Zeal Records / Cargo Records
“I can’t go back to what I know”, Gaëtan Vandewoude sings on Isbells’ brand new album. Admittedly, the line has been lifted out of context here, yet it seems appropriate to illustrate the artist’s current state of mind. After all, the last thing you want to do after you have made a succesful debut album is to repeat yourself. “I’m by no means a very accomplished singer, nor am I an outstanding musician”, the Belgian born singer says modestly. “But I definitely want to keep growing as a songwriter. When I’m listening to Bob Dylan or Bon Iver, I realize these guys represent the kind of purity I’m after.”
Isbells, at least in the studio, is Vandewoude’s one man band and their first, self-titled record, which was released in 2009, caught everyone by surprise. It spawned two singles (‘As Long As it Takes’ ans ‘Reunite’) that surfed the airwaves for months, went gold in Belgium and was praised by British radio DJ’s such as Zane Low, Rob De Bank (both from BBC) and Trevor Thomas (Magic AM), as soon as the album hit the stores. It came out in Benelux, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and even got the thumbs up in Australia and Japan. In the slipstream of the album’s release, Isbells played up to 140 gigs in eighteen months as a four-piece and wowed audiences at prestigeous festivals like EuroSonic in the Netherlands or The Great Escape in the UK.
On ‘Stoalin’’, Isbells’ second collection of songs, Vandewoude has managed to expand his musical horizons, without letting go of the ingredients that made his previous effort such a magical listening experience. Once more the album offers organic, introspective and somewhat wistful folk rock, built on catchy tunes and embellished with lush vocal harmonies. Like its predecessor it was recorded in the singer’s own studio, set up in a shed next to his house in the countryside. Gaëtan Vandewoude also stuck to the ‘less is more’ aesthetic he experimented with when he was cutting his first cd. His quiet, understated voice and acoustic guitar playing are still at the heart of the music. Most of the tracks however are coloured with light touches of banjo, organ, trumpet, various types of percussion and gorgeous backing vocals by Chantal Acda (sleepingdog, True Bypass)
At first listening, one is struck by the ‘almost flamenco’ guitar on the title track, the children’s choir that pops up in ‘Elation’ and the strange but wonderful orchestral coda to ‘Erase and Detach’. “The moment I wrote it, I knew I wanted this song to erupt like a volcano at some point”, the singer explains. “If I told you how many tracks we used and how many layers of instruments we piled on top of each other with a view to this, I’m sure you would never believe me.”
Those hoping to find the meaning of the album title in a dictionary are bound to be frustrated, as ‘Stoalin’’ is a word of Vandewoude’s own invention. “While I’m tinkering with a new song, I tend to hum phonetic sounds or half-sentences which, at a later stage, will be replaced with sensible lyrics. But in the case of ‘Stoalin’’ I found myself unable to come up with an alterative way to express the feeling I was trying to convey. So I decided to keep the original word in, even though it’s a neologism. But as the meaning lies hidden in the emotion, I’m pretty confident the listener will get the idea.”
Gaëtan Vandewoude started making up the songs for the new album in a little house on a hill in Spain. As he recorded some of them in the living room of his family home, inevitably all kinds of random noises started seeping in: a car passing, rain falling, a dog barking at night. “I suppose I could have got rid of these sounds while mixing the record, if I had really wanted to”, the artist says. “But I could not be bothered. To me they just belonged to the overall picture.”
Apart from ‘Illusion’, the first single, there are plenty of other songs on ‘Stoalin’’ that without any doubt will become radio classics in the months to come. ‘Heading for the Newborn’, ‘Falling In and Out’ and the stripped-down, solo acoustic ‘Letting Go’ keep lingering in your memory only after a couple of spins. “The latter is slightly older than the other tunes that made the cut”, Vandewoude explains. “I demoed it as soon as I had the lyrics finished and then completely forgot about it. But when I rediscovered it on my computer, I got hooked on its rawness and vulnerability. I was not sure whether it would fit the package, but when we put it in the the middle of the song sequence everything fell right into place. To me, it’s one of the key tracks on the record.”
On ‘Stoalin’, the extremes in the Isbells’ universe have become a little more pronounced. In fact, ‘Elation’ and ‘Baskin’’ must be the most light-hearted and upbeat ditties Vandewoude has knocked out so far. “True, but they are no less personal for that”, he emphasizes. “Finding the ability as a songwriter to express the moments of joy and euphoria in my life was quite an achievement to me.” Other songs come across as much darker and more vindinctive than one would expect to hear on a record by Isbells. The opening lines of ‘Falling In and Out’ (“Looking forward to break your heart and turn on you”) or the chorus to ‘Heart Attacks’ (“I want you dead or gone / I never want to see you again”) sound pretty harsh and are in stark contrast with the mostly subdued musical performances. “There’s less suppressed anger, this time. There were moments during the recording process when I asked myself: ‘Can I really sing this outspokenly negative, vengeful stuff?’ Well, as it turned out, I can. Because these were things that were going on in my life in between albums. I’m just being honest about broken friendships. To me songwriting has always been a way to keep my sanity. And with every album I make, I get to know myself a little better.”
Part of the new Isbells record also deals with being stuck -in a relationship, a situation or just a mental place- and the desire to break loose and have a clean slate. It is no coincidence the album ends with what seems te be a mission statement: “The time is now / To set a new direction.”
So are Isbells to boldly go where no man has gone before? Well, wait and see. For starters, they will embark on a small tour of the People’s Republic of China in May. “Are we going there with high expectations? Not at all”, Gaëtan Vandewoude says grinningly. “But it looks like a most exciting adventure and we have nothing to lose, so I guess we’ll just have go.”
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