Portland's aggressive new frontgal can hit all the notes while she hits you in the face.
Recorded last year with Ron Harrity (who also plays drums — seriously, what can't this guy do?), Map Room was an album before Isobell was really a band, mostly just Hannah Tarkinson on vocals, Chris McKneally on guitars and bass, and Bekah Hayes on piano and other keyboards (plus a notable vocal front on "Love in 3 Verses"). They've since added drummer Seth Kearns (This Way), Josh Denkmire on bass, and Eric Ambrose on keyboards and maybe a horn or two, while Hayes has moved to LA.
Tarkinson has a brassy delivery, with an affect that makes her sound like Sinead O'Connor at times, and can often make the lyrics tough to make out. She grabs you by the throat like Cat Power sometimes can when she's not doing her shy routine.
The band consistently play with dreamy and dainty openings and backings, then crash in with distorted guitars and gritty vocals, setting up expectations of pretty and delivering like a spotlight in the face. This is carried through from the album-opening "Nonnie," where we're greeted by dreamy organ that's supplanted by an alien whine and then swaggering rock, to the late-album "Peeping You," where Tarkinson cuts like an ice-pick through Jell-O: "Behind these two lids/Yes, it's true/I've been peeping you."
Hayes's piano work is the pink bow on Isobell's black leather jacket, opening "8 Things" like a Sting tune and finishing "Matador" as a lifeline to hold o nto. McKneally stands out with Idaho-style guitar work, playing bits of notes and letting the sounds of his fingers rubbing the strings stand in place of a lick, then delivering big punctuations where they're needed. He's probably best in "In Your Wake," a Pavement-like amalgam of cow-punk and distortion, a mean kick in the shins: "I dodge you like bullets."
Tarkinson's day gig is as a designer running Ponomo and this disc is nothing if not stylish, with a flair for the dramatic and a sense of the sublime. As a debut by a band that's just becoming a band, it's a promising one, indeed.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at email@example.com.
Map Room |Released by Isobell, with Lady Lamb the Beekeeper + Phantom Buffalo | at SPACE Gallery, in Portland | May 30 | www.myspace.com/izzabella