Is/Is show kaleidoscopic talent on new album III

Is/Is: Rock like an Egyptian
Is/Is: Rock like an Egyptian
Emily Utne

It's a deep, dark night around Christmas time in Pequot Lakes, Minnesota, and Is/Is bassist Sarah Nienaber lies on her back on the frozen lake at her parents' house. For hours, she records the subterranean drone of the ice thawing in the strangely warm winter. These recordings will eventually form two short interludes on the band's latest album, III.

Months later, Nienaber is at guitarist Sarah Rose's duplex in Prospect Park, on a block full of fancy Victorian houses. Rose, just 21, is all crazy amber hair. Her tiny arm has a bracelet of copper coiled around it, and her fingers are adorned with rings in silver — transition metals — which complement her heavenly blue eyes. Nienaber, who has the face of a cherub, sips booze out of a mason jar while sitting on the steps awaiting drummer Annie May, who soon bikes over after work to join them. The little boy raking leaves next door looks over at them, then runs into his house.

For Is/Is, Rose and Nienaber say they play out of their comfort zones; Rose considers herself a better bass player, and Nienaber feels the same about guitar, which she plays in her other band, Gospel Gossip. But when Nienaber was offered a solo show, she asked Rose to join her. The ladies performed songs that Rose wrote on guitar, and Is/Is was born.

When the band's original drummer, Mara Appel, moved to Portland, things shook up — but rebounded quickly with Zoo Animal's Holly Newsom filling in until the band found a permanent replacement with May. All three drummers perform on III, just one of the many meaningful connections to the album's title. May's no-nonsense vibe and sweet positivity gave the band some needed roots, although she was a bit skeptical about joining after seeing the band perform on MPLS.TV's City of Music video series.

"I thought, 'Oh my god, they're such hipsters! I don't think I can do it.' But I can do it, I think," says May.

"We're just weird and punk — that's all," Nienaber responds.

Recorded with producer Neil Weir at Old Blackberry Way studio in Minneapolis, III shows the band's panoramic talents. There's the hazy psychedelia of "Sun Tsunami," the insanely satisfying discord of "Hate Smile," and the bright pop sunshine in "Moon Dropping." Nienaber's wailing ice in "Untitled One" and "Untitled Two" adds an ethereal daydream feel. But Is/Is also bring the heavy-duty rock with their first single, "Fire," where simple guitar crunch meets feather-soft vocals, when Rose sings, "I see your daughter's on fire but there is no water to put it out." Here, her voice is relaxed, effortless, like the most perfect stoner chick drinking beer on the beach.

"She's one of the most consistent and natural vocalists I have ever recorded," says Weir, who also praised the band for being simultaneously ragged and adept. "I don't think they've ever shown up to a session with enough guitar strings, but somehow they get down to work and pull everything together."

In case it needs saying, these three musicians are women, which means dudes come up to them after their shows and tell them they sound like Sleater-Kinney. Fans also mention the Doors as a comparison. But rather than invoking the sounds of other bands, Is/Is take disparate influences like '60s garage rock and Patti Smith and tangle them together.

Like Nienaber as the snowy winter babe lying on the ice under the stars, Rose also finds that her creativity is inspired by nature, but for her it's the clay, sand, and cactus of the Southwest.

"When I'm in the desert, I feel inspired in this way that never happens anywhere else," she says, noting she's written songs since was 13. "I used to just grab a guitar and whatever happened, happened. Now I think about what I want the music to sound like first."

At an Is/Is show on St. Patrick's Day, Nienaber sits on the patio of the Kitty Cat Klub as warm breezes flow through, and gangly drunk guys in green clothes stumble around. She says that for her there is no backup plan — a musician is all and everything she's ever wanted to be. And it's believable; it's the burning look in her eyes, the nervous tapping of her foot, and the traces of fear that communicate this conviction as clearly as words.

With a three-week tour that will take the band to both coasts coming up, and the transmission on their '98 Chevy Astro van just replaced, things are a little bit shaky, but that doesn't seem to get these women down. Sometimes there is nothing better than being young and broke, beautiful and free.

Is/Is's new album III

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