Reviewing the followup to my #1 pick of 2006 is a tough gig. I loved Islands' debut Return to the Sea so much that it inevitably carries a lot of expectations over to the next release. Did I set myself up for disappointment? Since that album's release, I've encountered a few worrying things. For one, when I saw them in fall `06 (live review) it all seemed a little cold and calculated, but was overall a tight and satisfying set by the touring lineup in which they unveiled a couple cool new tunes. Also, in sources I can no longer locate, I read about how Nick Thorburn (the artist formerly known as Diamonds) has since basically disowned two of my favorites from the debut, "Rough Gem" and "Volcanoes," which he felt were 'immature' in his current songwriting mindset. Lastly, I was frightened when I saw the album art, which Thorburn claimed is a vagina in a Merry Swankster interview and I hope to God he is joking. Either way, it haunts my dreams.
Islands is almost an entirely new band this time around. Return to the Sea was Thorburn and Jaime Thompson coming off of the Unicorns and calling in help from biggies in the Montreal indie scene including Arcade Fire and Wolf Parade members. With less typical rock instruments playing such a big part of that record, Thorburn assembled a band that could reproduce it, and Thompson's departure soon after the album's release also called for a new drummer. The only other member beside Thorburn remaining from the Return sessions is bassist Patrice Agbokou. So this, their sophomore release, is the sound of a tightened touring outfit coming together to track essentially for the first time as a band.
The two tracks they released in advance showed complex songcraft and more new directions, which is to be expected after all the twists and turns of Return. "The Arm" is lengthy and a bit proggy, with a catchy guitar lead commingling with the Chow brothers' string lines, and though it has a dark feel it still manages to stay in the pop realm thanks to Thorburn's signature breathy vocals. "Creeper" has a simple pounding drum machine beat and buzzy guitar line, sweet bass clarinet by guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Patrick Gregoire and some of the more prominent synth parts on the album, which turn out to be dying off or relegated to background parts. Hope you weren't pining for more synth features like "Rough Gem" and "Tsuxiit." "Abominable Snow," a late-era Unicorns song and one of the first Islands tunes to make the Internet rounds, finally finds a home here with its longer intro and some minor melodic changes, with synths again dissed and replaced by organ in the bridge.
All the songs gel more so here than in the debut in this epic direction that Islands have been riding, taking Thorburn further and further from the off-the-cuff feel of his work with the Unicorns. Sure, Islands burst out of the gate showing these tendencies with Return's nine-minute opener "Swans," but here they make it a way of life with only two songs staying within the typical under-four-minute pop timeframe. Seemingly in an homage to epic tunes, "In the Rushes" breaks into a second half to play off of the Who's first attempt at the rock opera "A Quick One While He's Away," blatantly borrowing the classic falsetto "cellos, cellos, cellos" though changing the original "you are forgiven" to "you are forgotten."
As a whole, this beast nears 70 minutes and is a bit tiring to take in. By the time the older tour-worn "We Swim" and "To a Bond" roll around, I'm have trouble telling if these songs are weaker or it's just ear fatigue. The latter peaks my interest in the slow-burn buildup about six minutes in with that tasty guitar tone and violin screeching, which keeps making me think of VU's "Heroin." The back end is fully redeemed by "I Feel Evil Creeping In," a fantastic song that builds and drops then builds again, with the catchiest marching sing-along chorus on the disc. Closer "Vertigo (If It's a Crime)" is the most epic and darkest of all, an 11-minute three-part story. In part one, the character is at trial being sentenced, and though the chorus is downright sunny, it's not a good verdict as is evident by the chain percussion. Then there are two instrumental sections, the first being the events leading up to the execution in which the music builds up to a fevered pitch. The last section is where the group sounds truly proggy (the last two minutes are total Yes) representing the moment of death by hanging and ending the record. It's pretty impressive.
Though it doesn't have much to do with how good this album is, I am also a bit concerned with Thorburn's dickish tendencies, two instances of which can relate to the song "J'aime Vous Voir Quitter." While I know Thompson's departure was a hard thing for Thorburn to deal with, the guy just felt the touring life wasn't for him. "Stabbed in the face / Glass in my guts" seems a bit harsh and over-dramatic towards a guy you say is still your friend. However, it is a catchy tune with Thorburn's vocals reaching new intense timbres, and it has a cool whooping Afro-pop/Caribbean section, an influence carried over from songs like "Jogging Gorgeous Summer" from the debut. Yet I find it unnecessary for Thorburn to trash-talk Vampire Weekend as being unoriginal Paul Simon copycats, while claiming his own band got there first and is using the inspiration more creatively (also from that Merry Swankster interview).
Speaking more of Jamie Thompson, I miss him. He had a unique loose and light style, often using brushes to great effect. While current drummer Aaron Harris is solid and versatile, bringing more rock to the proceedings, something about Thompson was special. That brings me to the biggest but hardest-to-explain problem with this album. It's too tight! It's too well-put together! Return had the playful feel of some friends fooling around in the studio, a new band with no defined sound yet up for trying anything. Now that the band has found its footing and is a technical powerhouse (with a couple young prodigies stolen from music school on board), it's upped the tech level but lost a bit of the spark.
I'm a tough critic only because I love Thorburn's songwriting so much. He wouldn't be pleased that I bring so much of his past into this review (the press materials don't mention the Unicorns or Thompson), but it's hard stuff for me to just ignore. Though I pick apart things here, it really is a good grower record with a lot of solid tunes showcasing Thorburn's development as a songwriter. And while it's a new direction (and a bit too long), it puts my fears to rest. It's just not as charming as Return and won't claim another #1 spot.