Music

Islands: Arm's Way

Photo: Melissa Trott

Nick Thorburn and company deliver an album so lavish and over the top, that you have to marvel at the fact that they actually almost pull it off.


Islands

Arm's Way

Label: Anti
US Release Date: 2008-05-20
UK Release Date: 2008-05-19
Amazon
iTunes

Rising from the ashes of the Unicorns and their schizo brand of Beach Boys dream-pop, Islands first revealed themselves to the world in 2006 with the flawed but endearing Return to the Sea. Co-Founder and frontman, Nick Thorburn was able to infuse just as many (if not more) methodologies and influences that were seen in the Unicorns repertoire into the Islands playbook. The band's wanderings into the worlds of calypso, Afrobeat and dancehall helped to bring an air of originality to Islands without completely abandoning the adventurous nature of the Unicorns. Unfortunately, the finished product lacked a certain central voice, and was ultimately a bit overlong and scattered. However, with Return to the Sea, Islands were able to re-enter the scene with a "take notice" kind of aura surrounding them that would undoubtedly carry over into their next attempt at immortality.

Arm's Way, an album that deals in death and deception about as much a Marilyn Manson record, takes a step in a different direction. It is not only clinically dark, bordering on devious; but sounds as if Pavement (circa 1995) just created a weirdly symphonic opus about murder, fate, and the nature of man, and then decided to record it as a decked out classic rock band. Strangely, I'm not sure if that is the genius of Arm's Way, or its ultimate undoing.

What you mostly take away from the album is its menacing aura. There is a foreboding quality that permeates the whole of Arm's Way, both in the music and the lyrics; both on the surface and underneath. It all effectively makes Arm's Way something of a mood piece. When thinking of it more as a specific exercise -- almost like a character study -- it can help alleviate some of the pressure that the album instills as it fumbles through its bombastic set pieces.

Using their "rockist" sensibilities by way of their more pop-like trappings, Arm's Way is an infinitely interesting meeting of mindsets and genres. Witness the giant, classic rock guitars, as well as the '80s style synth break-beats and orchestral maneuvers. Arm's Way is like T. Rex on uppers AND downers. However, in trying to compensate for Islands apparent lack of small-mindedness, the album dives into this world of lavish experimentation with no regard for what may lay in the water beneath. While that may be inherently brave, it all comes off so garish and extravagant that Islands lose so much of the charm from Return to the Sea. For all of its imperfections, Islands first album was (at least) honest. Arm's Way, while certainly personal, gives a distinct sense of Thorburn trying a bit too hard to be taken seriously.

It isn't all business all day, though. Some of their old buffoonery sticks to Islands’ respective sleeves. There is that awesome “La Bamba” breakdown at about the two-minute mark of "J'aime Vous Voire Quitter". “Creeper” and “Kids Don’t Know Shit” are perfect examples of the baroque pop style that actually works in Islands’ favor and Thorburn's lyrical work is mostly masterful with his odd brush strokes and troublesome characters. However, let’s face it, any album that ends with a three act musical centering around the hanging execution of the main character might have a little too much to answer for. Arm's Way is just ridiculously over the top, which would be fine if that worked to it's advantage every time. It, however, does not.

Musically though, you can't deny the talent here. These lush arrangements would almost seem at home, but for their seething undercurrent. When the more ostentatious pieces are followed by the more stripped down, synth-based productions; it is hard not to be impressed by the fluid nature of it all. Thorburn has always had a knack for adding a debilitating quality to his jubilant rhythms. It is a dichotomy that he has embraced and taken to another level on Arm's Way. It's just that he may have taken it a bit too far, as Arm's Way may be technically impressive but ultimately a bit of a boring downer.

Logically, Arm's Way just doesn't seem like the next step for Island's. For that, I suppose you can commend Nick Thorburn. He has intentionally gone against expectations and created, at the very least, a unique and personal album that can be poked and prodded and discussed along with the great miscalculations of our time. I mean... if that's what he wanted, then he got it. I guess.

6
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Books

90 Years on 'Olivia' Remains a Classic of Lesbian Literature

It's good that we have our happy LGBTQ stories today, but it's also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce. In Dorothy Strachey's case, it produced the masterful Olivia.

Music

Indie Rocker Alpha Cat Presents 'Live at Vox Pop' (album stream)

A raw live set from Brooklyn in the summer of 2005 found Alpha Cat returning to the stage after personal tumult. Sales benefit organizations seeking to end discrimination toward those seeking help with mental health issues.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

A Lesson from the Avengers for Our Time of COVID-19

Whereas the heroes in Avengers: Endgame stew for five years, our grief has barely taken us to the after-credit sequence. Someone page Captain Marvel, please.

Music

Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Our writers undertake a track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the 1990s: Nirvana's Nevermind. From the surprise hit that brought grunge to the masses, to the hidden cacophonous noise-fest that may not even be on your copy of the record, it's all here.

Music

Deeper Graves Arrives via 'Open Roads' (album stream)

Chrome Waves, ex-Nachtmystium man Jeff Wilson offers up solo debut, Open Roads, featuring dark and remarkable sounds in tune with Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus.

Featured: Top of Home Page

The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Even in the coronavirus-shortened record release schedule of 2020, the year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2020 so far are an eclectic and increasingly "woke" bunch.

Books

First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?

Riffing off Marx's riff on Hegel on history, art historian and critic Hal Foster contemplates political culture and cultural politics in the age of Donald Trump in What Comes After Farce?

Reviews

HAIM Create Their Best Album with 'Women in Music Pt. III'

On Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM are done pretending and ready to be themselves. By learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, the group have created their best work to date.

Music

Amnesia Scanner's 'Tearless' Aesthetically Maps the Failing Anthropocene

Amnesia Scanner's Tearless aesthetically maps the failing Anthropocene through its globally connected features and experimental mesh of deconstructed club, reggaeton, and metalcore.

Music

How Lasting Is the Legacy of the Live 8 Charity Concert?

A voyage to the bottom of a T-shirt drawer prompts a look back at a major event in the history of celebrity charity concerts, 2005's Live 8, Philadelphia.

Music

Jessie Ware Embraces Her Club Culture Roots on Rapturous 'What's Your Pleasure?'

British diva Jessie Ware cooks up a glittery collection of hedonistic disco tracks and delivers one of the year's best records with What's Your Pleasure.

Music

Paul Weller Dazzles with the Psychedelic and Soulful 'On Sunset'

Paul Weller's On Sunset continues his recent streak of experimental yet tuneful masterworks. More than 40 years into his musical career, Weller sounds as fresh and inspired as ever.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.