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Islands - Arm's Way Print E-mail
Sunday, 01 June 2008
ImageBack when Nick Thorburn was a vocalist/guitarist/songwriter in the Unicorns, it was hard to imagine that he’d ever grow up. Barely in his 20s at the time, he seemed more interested in elaborate media pranks than performing and recording, with he and his bandmates getting into staged fistfights, hiring homeless people to join the band for a night, and starting press wars with other bands they knew. When they broke up in late 2004, it seemed like the logical conclusion for a band that was good enough to earn considerable indie buzz but probably not ingenious enough to outlast their reputations as notorious goofs. When Thorburn formed Islands with former Unicorns drummer Jamie Thompson with the stated intention of playing world music, his announcement was met with reasonable indignation and suspicion, dismissed as another likely ruse. But their debut, 2006’s Return to the Sea, was no joke (nor was it a world album), instead resulting in a solid if unspectacular mix of unironic indie pop that left some room for growth. On Arm’s Way, Thorburn grows up.

His orchestral/art-pop/prog rock extravaganza, the Islands’ sophomore release sharpens and refines everything they did on their debut, sacrificing raw edges and unkempt turns for precise shifts in tempo and tight focus textures. Whether or not that’s a positive development will largely be determined by whether you prefer your pop quirky or careful, but there’s little denying that Thorburn has poured a massive amount of imagination and sweat into these constantly shifting, cleverly unfolding arrangements. The work of a true studio auteur, these are songs that aren’t content to simply impress. They want to live inside you.

The band having fully solidified around Thorburn since the debut, with Thompson having departed in the interim, the ensemble cast plays with focus and intensity, whether kicking up an Eastern European gypsy swagger on “Pieces of You” or doing a dead-on impression of the Who on the brilliant multi-part epic “In the Rushes.” Listen closely, and you’ll hear shades on David Bowie “Kids Don’t Know Shit” or bits of Pink Floyd in “Vertigo (If It’s a Crime).” There’s even a bit of giddy disco on “Creeper,” dainty chamber pop on “To a Bond,” and snarling riff rock on “Abominable Snowman.” But whatever references float into the mix, none of them stick for very long, with “Life in Jail” typical in its transformation from somber string-laden ballad to bounding Caribbean pop to breezy multi-tracked harmonies. In a different era, it might have been called prog rock, but these aren’t songs that develop slowly or in pieces as much as they shift from one melodic or sonic motif to another in quick succession, never taking time to ponder or pause. Despite his more mature approach, Thorburn still retains some of his juvenile fascination with death and dismemberment, whether singing about “a lifeless carcass in a badass car crash” or veins that “make stains when they burst from your legs” in “The Arm.” He even emotes dramatically about his feelings of abandonment over Thompson leaving him, to be “stabbed in the face” and attacked by wild dogs on the comically titled “J’aime Vous Voire Quitter,” a ‘60s styled spy rocker that recalls fellow Canadians Frog Eyes on its ominously swaying chorus and West African guitar pop on its unexpected bridge. But while his scattershot approach to songwriting might seem to suggest a lack of focus, close listens reveals just how ingeniously these songs are pieced together.

Ultimately, some may be disappointed that Thorburn has sacrificed much of his playful personality in making an album as all around ambitious as Arm’s Way. More than ever before, Thorburn is the dominant presence, commanding the album with his possessed shrieks, falsetto hiccups and nasal croon. In the end, this is his album and his coming out party, the confirmation of an artist capable of condensing about 50 song ideas into 68 minutes. For sure, no one is joking now.

With obvious care given to every texture and tone in the mix, there is not one note out of place on Arm’s Way. The resulting sound is crisp and clear, with strings swirling around growling guitars and Thorburn’s vocals always high in the mix. Yet despite the extreme control displayed over the arrangements, it still manages to sound visceral and spirited, delicate and driving in equal doses. A good deal of this content could be lost on low-end equipment, as the range of textures and fidelities in the mix is exceptional. Only good speakers or headphones are going to do it justice.

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