Saturday, May 31, 2008

Islands - Arm's Way

Of all the idiosyncratic indie rock bands in the world, Islands are front-and-center the weirdest and proudest. It is almost impossible to be more idiosyncratic. From the Unicorns untimely demise, to the weird lineup shuffle after the first Islands album, to the change in direction hinted at by Nick Diamonds, to the dropping of the stage name to Nick Thorburn, and to the disdain for a nearly universally-approved first album voiced in an interview, they are certainly as full of interesting digressions for the gossip column as any others. More to the point though, each of their albums is a big deal.

Unicorns Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone was arguably one of the best debut albums to be released in the early 00's, only to be forgotten a year later when that band would implode just as their audience was getting huge. Shortly thereafter came Islands Return to the Sea, which didn't sound like the Unicorns, but was still recognizably the same guy. That album was praised, and justifiably, but it is mostly a happy time, "mellow," pop album.

The second album from Islands, Arm's Way, is much more interesting. For starters, I don't know how much longer it actually is, but it feels like one of the longest albums I've listened to in years. That may be a bad thing for some people, but I don't feel like it really gets boring. What's weird is, the last three tracks sort of blend together for me, so that I always think, "Okay, this is the really long last track," and then it keeps going! The album is clearly longer than an hour and I would even say it flirts with the 70 minute mark, but I haven't actually checked the time yet. For another, like the previous two albums from this artist, it sounds different than everything they've previously done.

And yes, I bought the Scarlett Johansson and Mudhoney albums the same day as this (I did not buy the new Free Kitten album, even though it was only $9.99), and I feel this is the best of those three.

The opening title-track sounds a little like "Swans (Life After Death)," their previous albums opening track, for about thirty seconds. Then it switches into the primary hook for the song, which I can only describe as being a more straightforward pop-rock song than Islands/Unicorns have typically gone for. Second track, "Pieces of You," continues on in a similar vein to a not unpleasant effect. These are two of the more generic songs on the album, and though they may not be as funny (except for a line in the first one about a bee and honey), they are, adequately good.

The album picks up the pace up a bit more on the third track, "J'aime vous voir quitter," probably the poppiest song on the album and the best candidate for radio airplay. It also sounds more like "Rough Gem," than anything else here. Not a bad thing, and the song is also potentially the most gossip column-y, with obvious reference made to ex-Unicorn, ex-Island J'aime Tambeur (j'aime, j'aime, j'aime, partez-vous, but can i blame blame blame blame you?), which could make one consider this Islands' take on the concept for the Sebadoh song "The Freed Pig."

"Abominable Snow" follows, and the 1-2 punch of these tracks is the most satisfying on the album. This is also the best song lyrically, which is about abominable snowmen and whether or not they exist.

"Creeper" sounds like Islands trying to approximate Of Montreal and isn't a total failure of an experiment. It actually might be able to be passed off as a radio single in some circles. So could the next track, "Kids Don't Know Shit," another great song lyrically, and the third poppiest song on the album. It wouldn't be right to say it sounds more like the Unicorns than Islands, but it's about as unhinged as Thorburn allows himself to get. In general, that's the way I feel about this album though. It's closer to Unicorns than it is to the previous Islands album, but the songs do have that "really long" Islands quality. I just realized it's really complicated to discuss all three of their albums at once, especially to someone who isn't necessarily familiar with them in the first place.

"Life in Jail" is another excellent song lyrically, and is probably on par with Interpol's song "Not Even Jail," but it is far less melodramatic. It is still contemplative though. It signals the second half of the album, which is way different than the first.

"In the Rushes" seems like a crazy long song with a bunch of different parts, and to a certain extent, "We Swim" and "To a Bond" are the same thing. These three songs, actually, are hard for me to differentiate, or describe. They're just long, and indistinct.

"I Feel Evil Creeping In," the album penultimate track, also seems really long, but you know you're listening to it because Thorburn keeps repeating the line, and you know there's only one more song left after.

"Vertigo (If It's a Crime)" is not far off from "Swans (Life After Death)" except it's the closing track instead of the opening track, and it's probably more effective in that position than the latter is respectively. I've done a terrible job of describing what the second half of the album sounds like--you just get lost in it. It's slower, the lyrics are more contemplative, and in general it's not as good as the first half of the album, but it's easy to listen to all the way to the end because it's epic, and it's never really unpleasant. This is better than Return to the Sea, though only by a little really (they really are different albums), but it is still nothing compared to the Unicorns. As much as I will go see Islands when they play here, I would so rather be seeing the Unicorns, but the world doesn't revolve around me now does it?


Anonymous said...

I still feel blessed to have seen the Unicorns during one of their supposedly "on" nights, and still find myself putting on something off of "Who Will Cut Our Hair...", but I could never get into that first Islands record. Maybe Nick needs Ginger like Mick needs Keith.

JK said...

Ginger being the third member of the Unicorns? I thought the first Islands album was good but very different. It's not as affecting.