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Islands - Return to the Sea Print E-mail
Thursday, 01 June 2006
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    8.5
sound:    5
release year:    2006
label:    Equator
reviewed by:    Jonathan Easley

ImageWe’ll call it the Polarity Principle of Pop and it’s the reason why Islands can exist in the same universe as Black Eyed Peas. Together they’re symbiotic, self-metabolizing extremes, on a plane with yins and yangs, good and evil; there is no concept of victory without defeat, no sense of joy without pain and no appreciation for the genre-pranking pop of Islands without the hammered dog meat that is Top 40.

In 2004, three Montreal youths (Alden “Ginger” Penner and Nick “Neil” Diamonds the creative core, with J’aime Tambeur on drums), in a band with the little sissy name of the Unicorns, released what would be their only full-length studio album, Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone? It was synth-heavy, instantly lovable experimental pop about, among other things, unicorns (hey, you sing what you know) and it turned out to be a cult indie-pop sensation of sorts. The band toured and then quickly announced that the Unicorns were dead, only to reform as Islands, without Penner. Return to the Sea is Islands’ debut and is about, among other things, islands (sing what you know). It finds the band exploring a slightly more mature and infinitely more organic sound.

Over the course of Return to the Sea, an apocalyptic Alaska will precede an icy Argentina and milk will cease to be a viable nutrient for the endoskeleton. From another source these matters would be considered with an intense seriousness, but as conveyed by Diamonds’ sleeve-tugging, you’re apt to give it as much weight as a Scott Weiland statement of sobriety. That’s a good thing; Islands are balancing their fuller sound with the demonic tomfoolery of their preceding act, age not inhibiting the sugar burn as it’s still the simple pop songs that stick on you. “Don’t Call Me Whitney, Bobby” is all doo-doo-doos and skinny-armed, tinny percussion. “Rough Gem” is unreasonably catchy and perhaps autobiographical on two levels: Diamonds’ name as it relates to the gemstone, and allegorically self-deprecating in relation to his art – “Dig deep but don’t dig too deep.” The flip side is “Ones,” a foggy, Wilco-esque, slow-rolling, percussion-crashing downer. Sonically it’s the richest track on the album, and at no point does it feel like it has anything to do with Return to the Sea. While it may be nothing more than pubescent flexing, it’s a statement about the darker melodies Islands are capable of and how they may react under whatever moniker they materialize as for an encore.
The album’s cohesive success is a product of the communal maneuvering between extremes; guests Sara Neufield (violin) and Richard Parry (bass) of Arcade Fire shuffle around the new guitar-bass combo of Jim Guthrie and Patrice Agbokou. “Swan (Life after Death)” opens with Animal Collective-styled, rhythmic psych-folk before going downright epic with an anthemic guitar solo and drum blast that the band was neither capable of nor interested in as the Unicorns. “Humans” relies on percussion and horns to drive an involved tale about the perils of populating an unfriendly terrain. Instead of synthetic beeps and bumps, Islands keep the mood with an intentionally shoal-like B-movie soundtrack to envelope the suspense of the plot points.

The strangest pieces on an album full of looking-glass moments are the calypsonian clack of “Jogging Gorgeous Summer” and the hip-hop fused “Where There’s a Will There’s a Whale Bone.” The former is evidence that not even Islands would dispute, that they’re not above doing an actual island jam, and the latter features a synth line fractured by a bizarre extension of hip-hop that falls somewhere between rap, Primus and Gorrillaz. It’s a funny (if not a little creepy) hyperactive pathos spew, the deciphering of which has become no clearer to me after over a dozen listens (although I did catch the phrase “Wookie-style,” which seems appropriate enough).

It would have been understandable had Return to the Sea fallen short of the Unicorns’ charm – fellow alt icons Wayne Coyne and Jeff Tweedy also had their ugly periods – but Nick Diamonds seems to be sprouting right through his. It’s not easy; for every one that manages to transcend the genre (Shins) there are 10 who fall miserably short, due to messianic visions (Coldplay) or the realization that the mere ability to create a pop song is not necessarily what makes it memorable (Nada Surf). The Beatles or God or uppity music critics set the standards high and a lot of the low-hanging fruit has been picked. Lucky for Islands they’re already high up in the palms.

While Islands are not through mining whatever metaphysical terrain they have access to, the maturation process is expressed here through a fuller sound and more complex arrangements. That the album was recorded in Tambeur’s basement is a testament to both the skill of the recording team and the highly advanced nature of all the buttons now available. Producer Mark Lawson also recorded the Unicorns’ EP and has worked with Arcade Fire (a band similar in context), so he’s more than familiar with the general vision. Peppering Return to the Sea are strings (violin, cello), lap steel guitars and bass clarinets that can shift from playful (Neufield’s violin) to serious (lap steel) on the same track (“Volcanoes”). Perhaps the album’s greatest surprise is Lawson’s showcase of Tambeur’s much-improved and occasionally scene-stealing drum work (“TSUXIIT” and “Ones”).

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