Islands: A Band Profile

Canadian multi-tasker Nicholas Thorburn, when not fronting bands such as The Unicorns and Islands (who form the focal point of this blog), has been known to perform under the stage name “Nick Diamonds”. The idea that he represents a shimmering, lustrous object which has a tough, almost indestructible core translates well with the music he creates. Islands, which combines Thorburn’s vocals and musical leadership with a number of ever-changing instrumentalists, create a decent range of material that, at its best, tells a compelling tale amidst layers of indie-pop guitar work, keyboards and varied percussion.

The debut album, “Return To The Sea”, is my personal highlight from their three-album discography, and contains most of the reasons why I enjoy Islands so much. The best tracks contain clever story-telling, such as “Rough Gem” which acts as a charmingly laid-back attack on the diamond trade (that “d” word popping up again). This idea of grand themes being taken and made to feel casual by the backing music is also used in “Humans”, a cleverly structured ode to the fallibility of humanity, mocking how “we had to build a civilisation, let the planet focus on the planets rotation”, encouraging us to laugh at our own stupidity. Its this sense of fun despite bad situations that shines through when Islands are at their best.

As well as standard indie, Islands were happy to develop a range of styles on “Return To The Sea”. The cetrepiece of “Where There’s A Wish There’s A Whalebone” is a dense, caustic rap guest-delivered by BusDriver. Though I’m not a particular fan of this genre, and I feel like this section goes on too long and goes far too far into overdrive, people who are more connoisseurs of music will no doubt mention the shift in style as fresh and interesting, something I can’t disagree with. The calypso percussion on the aptly title “Jogging Gorgeous Summer” has the sort of small-scale laid-back Carribean feel that contrasts well with some of the more expansive tracks, such as the opener “Swans (Life After Death)”. Throburn’s vocals are an important part of the mix, he croons gently where needed, but his voice is quirky enough to carry the mixed moods.

The lethargy that surrounds most of the best songs is epitomised by the closing few minutes, as a single piano, a couple of vocal tracks and a very sparsely played violin combine to create the beautiful “Bucky Little Wing” (also known as “Renaud”, because Islands don’t seem to be too good at giving things just the one name). The simplicity is welcome, and Thorburn yet again shows off his skills at weaving a story as he sings of a friend’s strength in the face of racism and bullying. It is an ode, coupled delicately with a lavish piano melody, that creates a very memorable close to the album.

Perhaps, during the making of the next album, Thorburn should have remembered quite how beautiful simplicity can be. When “Arm’s Way” arrived, it was packed with large-scale, expansive tracks that combined layer upon layer of swirling strings, placing the vocals further and further back. Considering the style and pace of “Return To The Sea”, it is quite a shock that “Arm’s Way” comes in at nearly 70 minutes.

It certainly has good material on it, “Kids Don’t Know Shit” and “Pieces Of You” have interestingly dark moods, and have the sort of rising structure that particularly piques my interest. But more often than not the tracks go on for too long, stretching the material and adding extra instruments when sometimes subtlety should be used. There seems to be a moment in each song where the excesses could be toned done, where the mood could become suddenly succinct, and instead a further step is taken into wild, mis-matched complications.

It is indicative of the album that the strongest tracks are also the shortest, “Creeper” being a particularly addictive slice of guitar-pop, the paranoia seeping in through the edges whilst a cutting riff keeps the darkness afloat. There is certainly things to enjoy here, but the problem I have is with the pacing. Three of the last five tracks are over 7 minutes, by that stage in the album you dont want so many extra-long songs, it begins to feel as if you’re just waiting for the album to end, which isn’t particularly helpful to a record.

So, the third album “Vapours”, released just a month ago, arrives with me desperately wishing for Islands to slip back into pop sensibilities, to cut out the flab that weighed down the second album and to hear some of the variety in styles and lrics that made “Return To The Sea” so compelling. Well, I would call “Vapours” patchy, but it is certainly a head in the right direction in comparison to “Arm’s Way”.

The opener “Switched On” is an instant reminder that Islands have some electronica-influence also, crashing cymbals and tribal drums dancing around staccato piano and filthily-toned guitar, breaking suddenly away into a vocal croon and retro-synth. This settles down into more of what is expected from Thorburn’s vocals soon enough, and for the opening few minutes of the album it seems to be that the template of “Return To The Sea” would be the direction this record would take.

The title track is a strong point, its stop-start nature allowing the various instruments to show off, and with the lyrics sounding crisp and coming in at under three minutes to remind the listener that this will be the welcome lean affair after the bloated “Arm’s Way”. The skill at taking a physical plotline and mixing it into the cauldron of music is shown most openly on “Disarming The Car Bomb”, fairly standard indie instruments surround almost laughably surreal lyrics such as “I had my doubts about it, when I heard your henchmen shout it”.

For the most part the album does not reach these highs. Unconventional often enough to be interesting, there isn’t too much that is fantastic, and they are extended periods where ideas fail to hit their target. It has plenty of hooks, and there is pop abound here, but the gall to mix up the styles without warning or reason that helped “Return To The Sea” along is missing, and the best songs are good, not great. Plenty to enjoy, a definite improvement on “Arm’s Way”, but unfortunately too medicore in too many places.

I would definitely recommend you listen to the debut album, it has a lot of treats and would have a hardened indie obscurist mentally dancing along to pop tunes without them even realising it. I would advise getting “Vapours” as well, but only invest in “Arm’s Way” if you’re going to enjoy 70 minutes long, rambling, overly climactic experimental-pop.


About Alex Pavitt
I work in the field of emotion. My tools are instinctual feelings and my laptop is the medium between my brain and the outside world. I deconstruct and rebuild. I imagine. I steal other people's lyrics because somtimes, my own words aren't enough. I spend all of my time somewhere inside my head. I worship Douglas Adams, and in the back of my mind I am always painfully aware that I will never be as good as him or, for that matter, anybody else.

3 Responses to Islands: A Band Profile

  1. Pingback: Weekly Round Up 26 September – 2 October « Coke Zone Blog: the … « Celebrity Buzz

  2. OHAI, I wonder who pestered you to listen to Islands in the first place….

    Me, baby, me.

    • Alex Pavitt says:

      i knew i put the “thumbs up/thumbs down” option on for a reason…

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