At first glance, Poor Isa is primarily a banjo duet. But the actual sound of the album belies any assumptions about how such a project should sound. As on their joint album When The Shade Is Stretched (Aspen Edities, 2017), Belgian banjo players Frederik Leroux and Ruben Machtelinckx tend to subvert the traditional style of the instrument. That album presented two solo recordings, but here the players truly collaborate.
"Oceanfuls" opens the set with unearthly low drone sounds (punctuated by ritualistic woodblocks) that inspire another look at the album credits. Nope, no electronic instruments listed; it turns out the drones are created by playing a banjo with an EBow (an electromagnetic string driver that can create bowing effects). The later "Seagarden" shares a similar sound world and, in fact, the entire session was produced acoustically, with no overdubs.
"Sill" uses identifiable banjo sounds, but played more like a Japanese koto. That effect is even more pronounced on "The Sun at Two," with the addition of a voice like the bowed Chinese erhu. "Izu" finally has plucked banjo sounds all the way through, but it is a sparse, pointillist presentation just as far away from bluegrass as the earlier international evocations. The closer, "Sunday Lemons," wraps things up with a meditative texture of acoustically-beating close drones, a final minimal foray into territory where few banjos have gone.
Leroux and Machtelinckx are clearly on the same page here. This is music with an emphasis on atmosphere over drama, and a pacing more Eastern than European. A fascinating sound world, made even more so by the knowledge that it was produced acoustically.
Track Listing: oceanfuls; sill; the sun at two; elsewhere; izu; seagarden; noonstroom; shroud; sunday lemons.
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