The Natural Playmate, apparently the final release in the Rat-Drifting catalogue, is a series of extremely concise and focused improvisations performed by Eric Chenaux (guitar) and Jason Benoit (banjo). The familiar misshapen melancholy found on many Rat-Drifting albums runs through this entire disc, yet amidst this sticky tremble and slouch there is an extremely refined and intimate counterpoint between Benoit and Chenaux. Meandering narrowly within tight bounds, each piece is very distinct, coming off more as beautifully-executed-but-mostly-forgotten folk tunes than as capital-C Creative Music.
Many of the tracks trace a strange polyphony of superimposed modal labyrinths—interwoven plucked-string lines embellished with generous bends gently tugging the notes out of place. The banjo, while mostly occupying its usual role, mapping grids of bead-like flecks that dance steadily, also finds room to offer thinly resonant chimes and sundry other timbres. Chenaux often employs a bow to great effect, evoking a viol or perhaps a pleasantly straitjacketed sarangi, pitting the sweet sustained voice against Benoit’s brittle staccato. On the last track, the guitar trumps all prior brittle staccati by Chenaux’s use of a gated-distortion effect that utterly asphyxiates its tone. Benoit’s banjo, meanwhile, sprawls out, emitting a series of down-tuned waterlogged warps.

Although The Natural Playmate paints with a particular and peculiar palette, there is much variety of colour and texture here. This feature, coupled with the brevity and clarity of each track, makes the music on the CD remarkably digestible. In the case of this duo, never has the cliché about improvisations that sound composed been more true. This sort of almost familial intimacy and trust within improvisational settings was arguably the foundation of Rat-Drifting’s rich and diverse catalogue. This is a fitting, albeit delicate, farewell.