Bumping into Hannah Tarkinson on the street is like suddenly finding yourself on a movie set. As the Ponomo designer, she has a tangible sense of personal style, and then the dialogue starts snapping with ideas and big plans and it takes you 10 minutes to realize you don't really care about getting that sandwich anymore.
When Tarkinson sang on Isobell's first album, Maproom, I thought of her as a designer who sang. There was an artful way to her, but that could strip musicality from Isobell songs, leaving them more like a "piece" than a tune. They felt constructed.
With the release of the new Sea Spells, my opinion has turned around completely. This is a singer with style.
Part of this, of course, is the underappreciated fact that bands do, indeed, get better when they play together more often. Isobell are now a tight five-piece, with Bekah Hayes's piano and keyboard work providing alternately crisp melody lines and echoing organ atmosphere, and Chris McKneally's electric guitar tone moving between airy psychedelia and precise prog.
But the songwriting is stronger, too. It's a more collective affair and the songs move from point A to B without consideration for chorus or structure, but never seem aimless. Instead, there are repeated phrases, melodic runs in the verse backing, and triumphant instrumental jams. Tarkinson manipulates her lyrics, turning on words like they've stepped out of line and she needs to straighten them up and turn them about (they've included printed lyrics with the disc this time around, which is helpful and worthwhile — also, the album artwork by Kris Johnsen is a stark-blue complementary piece).
There can be a child-like quality to her delivery, as in "Prout's Neck," where things get a little maniacal early on, but few kids are going to pay out the falsetto that finishes the song. In general, Tarkinson is more straightforward, too, with less of a recurring affect and more of a focus on tone and performance.
She is wonderfully precise over a Chris Wilkes drumline on "Flocks," midway through, accompanied by a banging vibraphone: "Loneliness and the ripple effects/Leak this into the wrong hands/And it's murder." This after a straight Drew Wyman bassline in the open that's funky in a way that doesn't recall platform shoes and rhinestones. The indie types ought to be able to seriously get down and dance to this, buffeted by a softly distorted guitar solo and an organ line that descends into the finish.
"Yeslove" is danceable rock, too, like contemporary Fleetwood Mac, with waves of guitar reverb. The open here is a scene from a movie where the chick tells the band, "gimme something guys," and they just start in on a slow jam that's bound to make her look good. It's all kinds of Christine McVie in flowing scarves, and Hayes's piano is King Arthur's myths playing overtop a psychedelic guitar line Planets Around the Sun wouldn't sniff at.
"Sweet Water" and the closing "Nine" also might remind of Yes/Genesis prog-rock, after the bass break in the former and in the heavily muted piano of the latter.