With only a small selection of established artists from Belgium – with Netsky being the most popular but Django Reinhardt certainly the most pioneering – it’s no wonder the idyllic little country is more associated with chocolate, waffles and beer. Yet Zeal Records (from Belgium obviously, who also have Marble Sounds on their books) is fast becoming one of my favourite labels which makes their lack of a UK distributor all the more upsetting. No matter, the Internet’s parted the North Sea.
One of the many appealing aspects of folk is definitely the stories. You only need to look to Johnny Cash’s ‘A Boy Named Sue’ to understand why. Folk likes to spin tales of hope or episodes of personal struggle and Gaëtan Vandewoude (the song-writing vehicle behind Isbells) had plenty of experience to draw from. Having struggled to make an impact with various bands, he decided to install a studio in an old barn next to his house. Could there be a more appropriate setting for writing wistful tracks than a rustic barn in rural Belgium?
But for Stoalin’, auditory creativity was summoned from a little house on a hill in Spain. If you listen hard enough, you can hear random background noises that crept in. “I suppose I could have got rid of these sounds while mixing the record, if I had really wanted to”, Gaëtan explains. “But I could not be bothered. To me they just belonged to the overall picture.” It’s a testament to his organic song-writing.
Stoalin’ is Isbells’ second LP and it is a wonderful example of an artist expanding his horizons. The key ingredients from the debut self-titled album are still there; Vandewoude’s understated vocals, which is often lifted by some backing vocals to create delightfully warm harmonies and the simplicity of the acoustic guitar. The first album was sometimes criticised for being too simple but this was often by listeners who failed to hear the attention to detail and the subtleties in Vandewoude’s song-writing. Stoalin’ most definitely isn’t a reaction to that but its appeal is certainly more apparent.
Furthermore, before you go off googling the album’s title, save your precious time and refrain. He explained: “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 alternative 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.”
This says many things about the creative processes whirring around Gaëtan’s head. It sounds stupidly obvious but the sound, energy and tone of a track is important. One of the album’s highlights, ‘Falling In And Out’, is a wonderful example of this. On the surface, it is simple with lyrics that need little contemplation. Yet when I first heard it, I immediately knew it was going to be on repeat. There’s an introspective timbre to it that wraps its arm round you and lays your head down for a rest while you wonder about your own surroundings with a philosophical frown.
It’s not for everyone but for some of us, denying its organic charm is simply a struggle not worth fighting. But this second offering is more eclectic than Isbells’ debut which makes me more confident that there’s something you will like. The blissful, hand-clapping of ‘Elation’ will certainly appeal to listeners after something more light-hearted.
Poignant sounds and emotive lyrics are more common ingredients of Isbells though as the plain composition of ‘Letting Go’ demonstrates; it allows Vandewoude’s vocals to glow in a radiance of emotion. “I demoted 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 middle of the song sequence everything fell right into place. To me, it’s one of the key tracks on the record.”
You’d be forgiven for thinking Gaëtan is bitter and cynical but his unashamedly honest song-writing is definitely one of the most endearing appeals. “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.”
To be honest, if you didn’t enjoy the debut (embedded below) you’re unlikely to find more than a couple of tracks you enjoy on Stoalin’. But if you’re after some chilled folk that balances on a delicate combination of soft vocals and supple guitars then Isbells slots into an abundance of artists who do just that. What if you want more? What if you want the beautifully understated sounds together with powerful, candid lyrics? Listen to Stoalin’.