Drew Isleib – Sounds Through the Wall

Drew Isleib
Sounds Through the Wall

Drew Isleib’s Sounds Through the Wall is a curious little disc. There’s no doubt Isleib falls into the singer/songwriter disposition, and this disc carries a common enough sound from track to track to make Sounds… a smooth listen. There’s also no doubt that Isleib’s pretty talented, as he wrote and performed every note here on his own – a major point because nothing here comes off as amateur in any way.
The one thing that is odd about Sounds…, though, is that after a few listens, some casual distinctions can be made that could easily separate this disc into two parts – ‘fleshed-out’ and ‘starkly bare.’ Both ‘sets’ of material are very, very good, but it seems that Isleib’s more simple material comes off a bit more powerful. That’s not to say that there are ear-jarring differences between the two types of material here, because there aren’t – each track flows into the next pretty seamlessly. Still, multiple listens bring forth slight differences that totally change the presentation of the material.
The disc starts off on the ‘better’ foot, with the rather haunting “Drinking or Drowning.” The song lulls along on an acoustic rhythm with a calliope-sounding, well-gated rhythm guitar over top of it, while Isleib laments that, “We both want control over parts that have been bruised.” The track ‘drowns’ rather abruptly into the more upbeat, acoustic ditty, “Vodka,” which recalls Chris Carrabba in his finer moments, especially when Isleib repeatedly declares, “We’ll take in the poison together” with nothing more than his vigorous guitar rhythm to back him up.
The tone changes a bit with “Tore Your Hair Out,” as Isleib tones his vocal delivery down a bit to help accommodate the addition of keyboard and synth flares to the track. This becomes the first ‘full’ sounding track here with the introduction of a drum machine beat and, eventually, a very simple organic drum track. Isleib tosses in a nice little acoustic guitar solo towards the end before things fall away, as well. The song is actually quite nice, though it’s a very fleshed-out departure from the opening two tracks. “You Were a Song” is really the nicest song here, a ballad to a lost flame that thrives on a deliberate acoustic rhythm and Isleib’s strong voice. The guitar-based break in “Song” is textured well, with the solo guitar doing a nice job of ’emotionalizing’ the rhythm without overtaking it. “Orion” plugs along nicely with double-tracked vocals, a mouth harp, and a peppy synth line intertwining with another solidly catchy acoustic rhythm.
“Loneliest Road” is another delicate voice and guitar number with an incredibly simple, yet infectious acoustic rhythm that makes Isleib’s quiet vocal musings sound golden. “Matter of Time” loses a bit of intimacy thanks to the addition of a prominent drum machine track and more synthesizer work, though the rhythm guitar is still nice and Isleib’s voice still sits nicely in the mix. Isleib intones, “For the first time in a long time / I feel like a loser” to open “8%,” which is easily the best ‘fleshed-out’ track on Sounds Through the Wall. The only problem with the track is that a repetitive xylophone track drones a bit too loudly in the mix, though Isleib’s voice does pick up a bit (along with the cymbals on the drum tracks) in a decent attempt to drown it out. The vocal track to the full-blown track “God Damn” reminds me of a few old Led Zeppelin songs, though the track’s best moment happens when the rhythm slows during the chorus.
The best songs on the disc follow, starting with three minutes of a joking lament about the ‘loss’ of love in “Trunk.” The guitars are great, and Isleib’s voice is more forceful and gritty (in a good way) when he declares that, “Nobody’s seen you / No one knows where you are / So I’ll go outside and check the trunk of my car.” “Trunk” might be morbid, but it’s campfire-sing-along catchy, even in the rather odd, dissonant synthesizer and organ ‘solo’ that punctuates the song. The way-too-short-to-be-this-good “Pinkest Places” follows, with Isleib crooning, “I’ll whisper to the casket that I’ll take care of her” over a simple, circling acoustic guitar rhythm. If the lyrics didn’t suggest something/someone moribund, this could easily be mistaken for a good-time folk celebration. From there, the echo-y, dreamy “I Am Going Home” brings things back to the drum machine vibe for a bit. Isleib’s vocals sound nice here, thought the track feels like it’s dragging pretty badly by the time it wraps up. “Victoria Dubois” ends the disc on a very nice note, though, with a picked acoustic rhythm supporting Isleib’s reflective lyrics (“She’s everything natural / Everything new / She’s innocent / And seductive too / Victoria Dubois is always on my mind”), creating a delicate, poignant moment to end the disc.
It seems to me that the more basic, troubadour-ish material on this disc works better than the tracks that are layered with synths, organs, and drum machines, just because the natural beauty of Drew Isleib’s voice and songwriting seem to come across clearer on the more stark tracks. Still, as a whole, Sounds Through the Wall is an impressive body of work nonetheless.