Islands, for those of you who still don’t know (sarcasm, people), was started by Nick Diamonds and Jamie Tambour, respectively the singer/multi-instrumentalist and drummer for indie sensations the Unicorns, who imploded in early 2005 due to non-stop touring supporting their only full-length, 2003’s Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone?. Islands released Return to the Sea in April of this year and it has since become my most-spun album of `06 -- it’s a more organized and developed set of songs than the Unicorns’, yet it retains the infectious and quirky pop hooks and adds lots of cool instruments to the mix. I had to be there when they came through my (still new-ish) residence of Bloomington, to the intimate all-ages club Rhinos.
I arrived to find a huge rock-star type bus parked around the side of the building, which I was definitely not expecting from the band, and is weird to see at this venue which probably has a mere 300-400 person capacity. I had shown up a bit early, wanting to give you dear readers the full experience including opening acts, so I had to stand in a line outside. And there I remained for 50 minutes in the cold misting night air as I heard sound checks going on inside. The venue’s website said 8, and at 8:50 I finally made my way in, overhearing the door guy venting about how “Islands love their sound check!” I first scoped the merch booth to find that Islands shirts were $20! Screw that. Three knocks against Islands already for rock-star delusions. I tried to remain positive that this live set wouldn’t ruin my love for the album.
The two openers were rappers, which seemed odd at first, but after all, the Unicorns had a short rap breakdown in “Tuff Luff” and referenced Biggie Smalls in “Ready to Die.” Then, there’s the mysterious Th’ Corn Gangg hip-hop project of Nick Diamond’s in between Unicorns and Islands (which I still haven’t heard anything of), and then of course Islands have a rapped bridge on “Where There’s a Will There’s a Whalebone.” In fact, the opener Subtitle is one of the guys on that track.
Over an hour behind schedule, Compton-raised Subtitle (A.K.A. Giovanni Marks) started things off. I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy him or not, as his froggy voice on the Islands track kind of annoys me, but I kept an open mind. He tried valiantly to get the crowd warmed up by hanging from the rafters (he is incredibly tall) and playing with a mannequin head he introduced as ‘Jesus’ (which at one point he punted across the stage), but the set was killed by technical difficulties. He stated that his laptop had died on him recently, so his backing tracks were on a CD being played from the sound booth. I don’t know if what we heard were his actual albums’ songs or just him free-styling over some beats he had on a CD, but it sure sounded like he was pulling it out of his ass (even though he was good at that). To make things worse, the sound guys screwed him up further by stopping his first track abruptly in the middle of a verse, stopped, then restarted his second track about ten seconds in, and messed up his sequencing by skipping to the last track on the CD early and then having to go back tracks. Frustrated, Subtitle did one last bit without backing and left the stage after about 20 minutes.
Blueprint, from nearby Columbus, Ohio came up next accompanied by his DJ, Rare Groove. Blueprint succeeded where Subtitle failed, quickly getting the Islands-fan crowd in the palm of his hand with an a cappella bit denouncing the current image of hip-hop. He said some things like "No 20” rims / no pimp my ride / no ride to pimp" and "No MTV cribs, no crib at all" and the crowd ate it up. I’ve never seen a rapper smile so much -- he really seemed to be having a good time, and he let us have a good time too by assigning the crowd parts to yell out or repeat off of him. He also did a song that seemed to be straight-up “Billie Jean,” backing with his own verses but the original Jackson chorus lyrics, with everyone in the joint singing along and the DJ cutting the track out in time for everyone to falsetto “But the kid is not my son!” A couple more songs and Rare Groove quickly cut to “We Are the Champions” as Blueprint got everyone swaying with peace signs raised and it was time for Islands.
Now, I wasn’t too sure who to expect on stage for Islands. Return to the Sea was a Montreal all-star team with members of Wolf Parade and Arcade Fire contributing, but I knew not to expect them as they were merely helping out the new duo in the studio. Even of the original two, Tambour has since left the band -- touring his ass off was apparently not his thing anymore. Hell, I wasn’t even sure what Diamonds looked like. Was he the curly-haired Unicorn or long-haired Unicorn from that sweet video for “Jellybones?" Turns out he’s neither. Well, he was the long-haired one but has since cut it short, thoroughly confusing me into thinking the secondary guitarist/bass clarinetist was Diamonds when they first hit the stage. The current Island lineup (clothed entirely in white) consisted of that Diamonds doppelgänger Patrick Gregoire, Aaron Harris on drums, brothers Alex and Sebastian Chow sharing duties on violin, viola, keys, percussion and backing vocals, and then the only recording member present (besides Diamonds), bassist Patrice Agbokou. Diamonds jumped between electric and acoustic guitars, as well as synth while singing of course.
The band impressed me with all the instrumentation, covering most of the parts from a very orchestrated album. There was a lot of phenomenal violin, sometimes two at once like in one of my favorites, “Volcanoes,” where they showed off the hoe-down-style verses and the film score soaring lines in the choruses. The bass clarinet was a great touch and was something I have never seen a band use live before. There was bass clarinet in three of the album’s tracks but I’m pretty sure he added more in, possibly covering some low synth parts. They even had the recorder and the cuica in “Jogging Gorgeous Summer,” though the live rendition was a bit slow and clunky instead of the light calypso of the album cut. Unfortunately, no charrango in “Humans,” though.
Other highlights of the main set would be “Where There’s a Will” where Subtitle joined the band to do an extended version of his rap section, which seemed to work better with the live energy than on disc. They also played three new songs (or possibly two long ones), which were on par with the album tracks. The first one I recall had a great use of pizzicato violin, and the second, titled “We Swim” started with a slower 6/8 and then rocked out at the end. They played another unknown song after that, which may have actually been a seemingly unattached extension of “We Swim.” Then of course they closed with “Rough Gem” and its addictive-as-hell vocal hook and crazy synth lines. I knew they had to play my absolute favorite “Don’t Call Me Whitney, Bobby,” and sure enough they came back to play it along with two surprising choices. The not-so-secret solo piano song at the end of the album (apparently titled “Bucky Little Wing”) was fleshed out with drums and acoustic guitar, and worked extremely well. Then they played the nine-minute “Swans (Life After Death)” and didn’t cut it down at all. Diamonds, who seemed kinda shy throughout the set, actually invited a few dancing kids to come up on stage, and by the halfway point Islands were swarmed by dancers.
Here’s the set list, in order:
- new one
- "Tsuxiit" -- apparently pronounced ‘sue-key’
- Where There’s a Will There’s a Whalebone
- Jogging Gorgeous Summer
- new one -- "We Swim"
- another new one, or possibly continuation of the really long We Swim
- Rough Gem
- Don’t Call Me Whitney, Bobby
- Bucky Little Wing
- Swans (Life After Death)
Despite some rock-star tendencies on the business end, Islands impressively brought a complex album to life. The musicianship was impeccable though the energy left just a bit to be desired and Diamonds was a bit shy on vocals and in between songs. Fortunately it didn’t hurt the material much. Subtitle was probably just having an off-night, but Blueprint was fun as hell. Now go pick up Island’s Return to the Sea
everyone, though if you made it all the way to end of this review you probably already own it.