“It’s the little things.”
That quote has been uttered thousands of times in thousands of different variations. Cliche though it may be, it also happens to be true.
Case in point: “Sea Spells,” the new CD from Portland band Isobell. Every song has at least one little detail that takes the band’s music out of the realm of standard alt-rock fare and turns it into something really special.
Actually, the first thing that pops out when listening to “Sea Spells” is not such a little detail at all, but a huge part of the band’s sound.
The voice of Hannah Tarkinson is sensuous and emotive, sounding a bit like Leslie Feist with just a hint of Bjork thrown in, but with textures and subtleties that are uniquely her own.
But make no mistake, this is not your standard “strong female singer backed by four anonymous sidemen” scenario. Every member of Isobell is at the top of his or her game.
The band comes off as a tight, cohesive unit, with each member playing a role vital to the overall sound, and it’s the musicians who provide those magical little details that make Tarkinson’s songs sparkle.
Take the opening track, “Carnival,” for example. This is an impressive showcase for drummer Chris Wilkes that starts with an infectious Latin groove. Then, with a deftly executed time change from Wilkes, the track morphs into a slow blues-rock shuffle, completely transforming the song into something else entirely, but no less compelling.
It’s the other half of the rhythm section that shines on “Harpswell Sound.” Bassist Drew Wyman is the anchor that solidly lays down the groove while propelling the track forward, especially around the two-minute mark when the song really kicks into high gear. Wyman and Wilkes are solidly in the pocket by the time the track climaxes with yet another time change, this time with a rousing Nirvana-esque stomp that shows Isobell can rock hard when it wants to.
The band’s secret weapon may very well be keyboardist Bekah Hayes. Whether it’s the jazz-like piano tinkling on “Don’t Move,” the bluesy organ washes on “Carnival” or the gorgeous piano-driven ballad “Nine,” Hayes’s keys add coloring and texture to almost every track.
They elevate the music in subtle but noticeable ways, just like the perfect spice turns an ordinary dish into something delicious.
And let’s not forget guitarist Chris McKneally, as tasteful a player as you’re likely to hear on any local release this year.
He’s obviously a virtuoso, but his playing is never flashy or showy. He slides effortlessly from one style to another, from blues-rock on one song to grunge on the next and a touch of the psychedelic on others.
If Hayes’ keyboards are the spice of these songs, McKneally’s guitar playing is the meat and potatoes, the solid foundation around which the musical meal is prepared — solid, dependable and tasty, even when employing effects like the wah-wah peddle on “Yeslove.” Even his ukulele playing is outstanding. What might sound cutesy and cloying in a lesser musician’s hands sounds haunting and beautiful on “Sea Spells.”
This is one of those rare albums that you’ll find yourself returning to again and again because you’re not going to pick up on everything the first time through. New discoveries await with each successive spin.
Plus, there’s always something different to focus on, be it the solid rhythm section, the intricate yet subtle guitar work, the delicate flavoring of the keys or Tarkinson’s siren song gliding atop the whole soundscape.
Isobell will most definitely cast a spell on any listener. Stream the album for free and download it for $10 at isobell2.bandcamp.com.
Rick Johnson is a freelance writer and radio host from Westbrook. He can be reached at: