[21 October 2009]
Islands have a problem. It’s you. And it’s me. Vapours is their sugar-coated, poison response to their detractors.
The prog-rockish Arm’s Way alienated listeners looking for the band to replicate the Graceland-tinged, pre-Vampire Weekend, genre-hopping of their debut, Return to the Sea. The Arm’s Way Era can now be viewed as a brief interval wherein Jamie Thompson and Nick Diamonds took a break from making music together. During this era, Nick soldiered on, recruited about a thousand music school grads for his band, and decided to go by his real last name. The sun-baked disposition of the first record evaporated and left behind the sprawling, paranoid prog-rock of Arm’s Way. Thompson may have backed away from Islands, but remained in the background as the band took a darker turn. An album that perhaps takes too long to digest, Arm’s Way overwhelmed more than a few with its ambition.
Now that Thompson has returned to the band, Vapours is a decidedly different dish for Islands—one meant to go down in a single sitting. It’s an album closer in spirit to Return to the Sea, but one that takes its cues from ‘80s synth pop rather than white boy afro-pop or hip-hop. The songs are short, and it’s easily the most cohesive record Islands have completed. But a change in strategy isn’t evidence that Diamonds repents for Arm’s Way, rather it’s quite the opposite: he makes it clear that he doesn’t much care for your harsh words. In fact, he knows you’ll like Vapours better. Diamonds may be arrogant, but he’s right (and funny). Just like the sparkly rhinestone-covered cape Diamonds wears on stage lately, he knows you want to be entertained squarely in the lizard part of your brain.
The best pop albums take on a seductively effortless quality—an attribute Vapours positively bathes in before gracefully dissipating, as the title suggests. The seductively simplicity of this album is every bit as complex as Arm’s Way—that’s part of the reason its so seductive. The layers of instrumentation, striking melodies, and macabre imagery are as present on Vapours as they were on previous albums, but here they coil tightly rather than stretch out and expand. The band sounds neither as scattered as on Return to the Sea nor as angst-y and overwrought as on Arm’s Way. Islands circa 2009 keep the pop structures tight and buff everything to an electric blue sheen.
“Switched On” and “No You Don’t” set up the title track, a song where Diamonds seemingly sets forth his intentions for the album while addressing his critics: “Whom I entertain / Hoping you get dancing feet / Hoping that you like the beat / And I hope you don’t complain”. The disco beat and so-cheesy-it’s-perfect guitar intro keep it blissfully simple and stupid before building into the type of triumphant chorus Islands has perfected. It’s the type of classic, unabashed pop song that could have been written anytime after the invention of the synthesizer. When the verse comes back around again, horns drive home the hook and provide yet another layer of sound. Title- track “Vapours”, like the vast majority of the songs on the album, speaks to the body as a dance song, but offers enough instrumental twists to prevent monotony and warrant repeat listens. Along with the throb of “Tender Torture”, “Vapours” is one of the most arresting moments on the album.
Like “Vapours”, “Heartbeat” also seems designed to antagonize people and challenge perceptions of what is acceptable within an overly critical, bitchy indie culture. Diamonds filters his voice through Auto-Tune, a trend with a full-on critical backlash already in full-effect. Plus, it’s a reggae song, so that’s another hint. “Heartbeat” is a provocative act of hubris, and acts as bait to those listeners unwilling to abandon perceived notions. “I could have written more / But you don’t know what to listen for”, Diamonds sings. While it’s petulant and bratty, the move recalls the more confrontational work of his and Thompson’s former band, the Unicorns. Diamonds’ own stage act reinforces this reading as well, since he’s one of the few in polite indie society to risk putting off an audience. Like Diamonds’ stage persona, “Heartbeat” is playful, lively, and guaranteed to annoy some people. It’s great.
Vapours benefits from its willingness to engage its detractors, tighten up its muscles, revel in the strengths of its songwriting and show yet another angle to the music of Islands.
It’s a damn fine record. You got a problem with that?