Pretty, spooky, beautiful: sophomore album from Portland’s Isobell a gem

The five members of Portland-based Isobell felt no real rush in writing and recording a follow up to “Map Rooms,” their well-received 2008 debut. Much like the slow burning, moody pace of the band’s songs, the germination of “Sea Spells,” the new album, took some time to happen.

“There was no rigid agenda or timeline with ‘Sea Spells.’’ We let the songs come to life gradually in an environment where we were able to achieve exile from our daily lives,” said Hannah Tarkinson, lead singer and lyricist of the band, which will play a record release party with Olas and Reverie Machine on Saturday, June 1 at the Space Gallery in Portland. “We took our time in fleshing songs out, arranging them, making sonic decisions about them, sometimes extending them before recording.”

Tarkinson and guitarist Chris McKneally formed the band in the mid-2000s with Bekah Hayes on keyboards; Drew Wyman on bass and Chris Wilkes on drums. After “Map Rooms” and the ensuing spate of shows, the band took their time in writing new material. Even if music is your passion and your joy, life gets in the way. Though Tarkinson didn’t go into detail, there were some emotional milestones endured by all five members that contributed to the music heard on “Sea Spells.” McKneally would write melodies, and Tarkinson would craft lyrics, and the two would bring the nascent songs to the rest of the band to flesh out.

“After several months of adding and subtracting, editing and experimenting, we had a clutch of songs we dug,” said Tarkinson.

The Isobell sound is spooky, deep, and dark, and refreshingly different from most other bands in Maine – it’s not beholden to any particular trend in indie rock, be it snarky lo-fi garage fuzz or string band bombast. It’s at times spectral and spare, and at other times rocking and even slightly funky, like album opener “Carnival” and the searing “Harpswell Sound.”

Tarkinson’s (pictured at left) vocals have that kind of unusual phrasing heard in vocalists like Bjork, Bat for Lashes or Kate Bush, while McKneally, Hayes, Wyman and Wilkes create an atmospheric sound driven by piano and electric guitar, like if the National liked Jimi Hendrix, or if the Smashing Pumpkins had the instrumentation of the Arcade Fire. They’re unafraid of unusual sounds, like the chiming bells on “Flocks” or the gently plucks strings of the chilling “Prout’s Neck,” which has to be one of the prettiest songs recorded in Maine in recent years. “Sea Spells” was recorded with Todd Hutchison at Acadia Recording in Portland.

“We’re inspired by each other as band mates, as players and as people. And we’re inspired by the pathos of the world we live in and the places we want to go to,” said Tarkinson. “Musically, we hope the album reflects our love of certain bands, like Low, The National, Bon Iver, Cat Power, the Pixies… Todd’s attention to artistic detail is extraordinary and was spot on with our style.”

Isobell’s record release show on Saturday at Space Gallery starts at 8 p.m.; admission is $8, and the show is 18 plus.

Emily Burnham

About Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native, a UMaine graduate, a proud Bangorian and an arts and lifestyle writer for the Bangor Daily News, where she's worked since 2004. She reports on everything from local bands to local food, from media and the Internet to theater and dance. In her quest for stories, she's seen countless concerts and plays, been lobster fishing, interviewed celebrities, hung out with water buffalo and played in a ukulele orchestra, to name just a few. She's interested in everything -- especially if it happens in Maine. She welcomes any and all feedback or suggestions for stories.