Reviews

Islands (Ex-Unicorns)

Peter Joseph

Some groups flare up then burn out, and afterwards it's not quite clear what will emerge from the ashes. Will it be a phoenix, or a turkey? Time to find out...

Islands (Ex-Unicorns)

Islands (Ex-Unicorns)

City: New York
Venue: The Knitting Factory
Date: 2005-12-06

PopMatters Associate Events Editor
Witnessing the reincarnation of a favorite band always comes with a certain amount of risk. Some groups flare up, then burn out at an awesome rate, and afterwards it's not quite clear what will emerge from the ashes. Will it be a phoenix, or a turkey? And so I nervously prepared myself for the first New York performance by Islands, two-thirds of the phenomenally creative and criminally short-lived indie-pop trio the Unicorns. Who knew quite what to expect from a pair whose first post-Unicorns project was a hip-hop group called Th' Corn Gangg? With Islands' album, Return To The Sea, not due out until March (and only in Europe, so far) there was no way of predicting their sound.


Islands (Ex-Unicorns)
Thankfully, for those of us who hate surprises, two of their songs were intentionally leaked online last summer. These were catchy, slightly-muddy rock numbers, with guitar riffs painted on as thick as theater make-up. If these demos were any indication, we were in for a pretty rockin' show. After a forgettable opening act wrapped up their set, the crowd waited patiently for Islands to appear. After a few minutes of set-up, a shaggy-hair dude in a white suit crept onto the corner of the stage. He proceeded to pick up what seemed to be the biggest bong I've ever seen (it turned out to be a bass clarinet). He blew a series of jagged, reedy wails across the audience. Here we go, I thought, another band goes free jazz. As the clarinetist continued to squawk, the rest of the stage filled and the sound grew as band members began to appear: a pair of violinists, a second guitarist, a bassist and, of course, singer/keyboardist/guitarist Nick Diamonds and drummer J'aime Tambeur, the two fallen Unicorns. With the cast finally assembled, they quickly set out to prove that they aren't about to cross over into free-jazz and, more importantly, that they aren't going to be just another rock band. Islands' new songs don't sound anything like the two leaked tracks, and with sprightly violins and raspy bass clarinet, they don't sound like the Unicorns either. These new songs follow a far more traditional verse-chorus pattern than the hodge-podge tunes that made up Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone?, sometimes repeating the pattern a few more times than necessary. The choruses are hooky, like little rock anthems, while the verses and interstitial sections careen into jazz and something like polka. But what comes through most clearly on these new songs, and what reminds me why I liked the Unicorns so much in the first place, is the faux-innocence of Diamonds's vocals, the wispy, cracking notes that make him sound like a vulnerable, wide-eyed little naïf. His lyrics seem innocent and knowing at the same time, like early Kate Moss ads. His obsession with death still shows up, and his lyrics have the oblique abstractions of Ashberry and Tate or Malkmus and Berman. There was very little talking during the set, except for a few distant non-sequiters from Diamonds and too-professional, effusive comments from guitarist Jim Guthrie. Of course there were also a few jokes from the charming violinists, two Asian men referred to as "the Chow brothers." The band seemed as awkward between songs as they did during them. Nobody knew quite how to act on stage, with one of the Chows dancing a jig at the center, Guthrie muscling in on a mic, and Diamonds standing stock-still behind the keyboards. After a brief set of songs from the upcoming album, the band returned for the most polished performance yet: an encore cover of Paul Simon's "Graceland". For once they looked relaxed, and left the stage cheerfully. But after a much longer wait and the insistent applause of an unrelenting audience, Diamonds and Tambeur returned to the stage for the second encore. Diamonds introduced the song as "Abominable Snow", one of the two leaked songs. They hadn't played it since recording it months ago, he said. As soon as he revealed the song title, the audience cheered; they had been doing their homework. He looked a little baffled, uttered the word "Internet", then launched into the punky, spiky riffs that had given this audience hope that the Unicorns' creativity might be reborn. The band may still need time to iron out their stage dynamic, but no matter: the songs are so good that you can forgive a few wrinkles here and there. And you better. Given these guys' track record, it may not be safe to wait.


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