Wendy Eisenberg has been particularly prolific over the past couple of years, releasing albums showcasing their unique approach to guitar composition and improvisation. From the full-band cacophony of Auto and the warm, tweaked bedroom pop of Dehiscence (both from 2020) to the instrumental avant-garde rawness of Cellini’s Halo (2021), their prolific nature is matched only by the sheer breadth of their styles. Every new album seems to be an opportunity to assay a new subgenre of guitar music.
Their new album, Bent Ring, appears to be a combination of many of these different styles. Last month, Eisenberg released Bloodletting, a two-disc collection featuring solo acoustic guitar in the first part and tenor banjo in the second. Bent Ring, referred to on Bandcamp as a “twin” of Bloodletting, has Eisenberg singing and playing only banjo, accompanied by Michael Cormier on percussion. They’ve stepped away – just slightly – from the realm of improvisational free jazz and embraced somewhat more traditional songwriting, although, like anything coming from Eisenberg, “traditional” is an extremely relative term.
The songs on Bent Ring are often compact, sonic wonders, embracing vocal harmonies, rural Americana, odd sonic blips, and unusual lyrical observations. The album always seems to come at the listener sideways. Opening with the brief, hymn-like a cappella of “Abide With Me”, Eisenberg almost seems dead set on confounding expectations (and for anyone pining for a longer version of that song, “Abide With Me Verse 2” takes place near the album’s conclusion).
The tense banjo and insistent percussion of “When I Am an Artist” brings the proceedings into slightly more conventional territory, but the disarming nature of the arrangement makes it difficult to feel completely at home with Eisenberg’s narrator. “When I am an artist / I can be beloved,” they sing. “There was a transcendental lengthening of time / In a moment on the dock,” before the song ends abruptly. The album is filled with unresolved moments and unpredictable shifts.
In “Analogies”, Eisenberg’s twitchy banjo meshes oddly and beautifully with singsong harmonies that recall Carmen Q. Rothwell’s stunning 2021 debut album, Don’t Get Comfy / Nowhere, and go back even further to the jittery musical explorations of Laurie Anderson. But it never seems to be weirdness for the sake of weirdness. There are always vast swaths of beauty within the tension. The indescribably gorgeous balladry of “Amends” begins like a musical theater centerpiece from a parallel universe. It soon incorporates sustained, droning vocal harmonies that give the song even more of an ethereal heft.
The constant shifting of styles continues with “Evening Song”, which gallops along like a long-lost Appalachian standard while Eisenberg’s vocal remains remarkably low-key. The fact that their stringed arsenal is reduced to tenor banjo is impressive, considering the breadth of this unusual yet mesmerizing album. One never gets the impression that the instrument is being overused – the lack of standard guitar instrumentation is not lamented here.
Bent Ring’s closing track, “Domino”, sees Eisenberg performing solo, implementing an odd vocal delivery with prickly stabs at the banjo. “Sun be bright,” they sing. “On the road again / Leaving town has one kind of an appeal to me.” One never knows where Eisenberg is going – literally or metaphorically – but it’s always an intriguing, unique ride, and the subsequent journey could be something different. This kind of musical adventurousness is always a bold, unfettered joy.