Islands sprung from the ashes of mad Montreal geniuses the Unicorns, whose talent for perpetually surprising, sonically jarring, and genre defying indie pop was matched only by their internal volatility and penchant for pissing people off. After releasing a sole LP, 2003's stunning Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone?, the Unicorns imploded in late 2004; some members resurfaced briefly as the Th' Corn Gangg -- a weird indie rock/hip-hop hybrid -- in 2005 before Unicorns Nick Thornburn (aka Nick Diamonds, guitar and vocals) and Jamie Thompson (aka J'aime Tambeur, drums) formed Islands.
Where the Unicorns traded in stripped down, raw reinventions of rock formations, Islands is far lusher, boasting six members vs. the Unicorns' three, and enveloping various musical genres (calypso, reggae, afro-pop) into their pop pantheon. Sometimes the sound strays way too close to Vampire Weekend-brand preciousness or -- gah -- world music, but basically this is punchy, hooky, somewhat sprawling psych pop, clever music for the clever kids that saves itself through sheer enthusiasm.
Though Islands' first record Return to the Sea was strong -- see especially the epic "Swans (Life After Death)" and Th' Corn Gangg relic "Where There's a Will There's a Whalebone" -- and featured personnel from the Arcade Fire pitching in, it sounds to me like a band struggling to find its personality. The vibe is scattershot and unfocused, the end result being a somewhat diluted listening experience. There's a certain charm to the rougher aspects, but overall its an unsatisfying listen, album-wise.
By 2008, Islands had undergone some lineup changes; most notably, ex-Unicorn Thompson was out. The new six-man incarnation featured bass, guitar, drums, synths, violins, violas, oboes, clarinet, and some more kitchen sink odds and ends. The resulting album, Arm's Way, is a far more concentrated, distilled work of sonic assembly, melding psychedelia and polished pop in an intensely pleasing way to produce a spread-eagled work of fist-pumping smart-aleck rock 'n' roll.
Arm's Way shows its wise-ass stripes right away with the galloping, disco-stringed beauty of The Arm, a crashing, orchestral exercise in hyperbole. Its hooks are massive, its ambition more so, and it works incredibly well. The lyrics introduce a death-obsessed theme running throughout the LP, Thornburn -- who sings in a mocking, high-tension tenor that makes you want to smack the taste out of his mouth -- declaring, "Well, you'll swim until it's deep/ Until you feel like you're asleep/ Against the sound of warning cries you don't hear." It's a sentiment steeped in dread, but bearing a cockeyed smile, too sunbaked to be taken too seriously.
J'aime Vous Voire Quitter is a jagged gem, a headlong rush into a violent tale of attack and betrayal. The guitar slashes like shards of glass, and the rhythms stay pegged to thrash -- until the 1:45 mark, that is, when the band switches up its steez to indulge in some steel drum Caribbean piss-taking. Even that can't ruin this tune, though, a testament to the band's charms.
"Creeper" is a slinky, serpentine stalk, a thumping 4-4 beat bolstering one of the record's best riffs. "Right from the start, I was stabbed in the heart," observes Thornburn morbidly, "Didn't know I wasn't breathing, didn't know I had been bleeding." When the violins and violas start to stab the melody in the back, things get interesting.
My favorite tune in the collection is Kids Don't Know Shit, a wonderfully snarky potshot at anyone younger than you, with see-sawing strings, monster chords, and thrilling drums. Thornburn's vocals are inspired, soaring and searching, but accusatory and kinda sad, too. "Kids don't know shit/ Everything they've learned is wrong," he sneers. "Kids don't know it, but everything they've touched is gone."
Arm's Way isn't for everyone; it takes some patience to put up with Islands' at times too-cute pastiche approach. But for those willing to invest some time, there's gold here. At worst, Arm's Way is interesting. At best, it's pretty exciting, engaging, overflowing with great ideas and wide-eyed ambition. So if you don't mind sprawl, and are turned on by experimental potential, Arm's Way might just be up your alley.