Music

Islands: Return to the Sea

Dan Raper

As long as Islands keep treating us to these complex, appealing songs, we'll continue to respond more than positively.


Islands

Return to the Sea

Label: Equator
US Release Date: 2006-04-04
UK Release Date: 2006-05-08
iTunes affiliate
Amazon
iTunes

Throughout the show, Nick Diamonds periodically made the grand promise of taking the whole audience out afterwards for "milk and cookies". It was a result of his compelling, larger-than-life persona that the guy in front of us believed him enough to shout out an open invitation to gather at his apartment. The whole time we half suspected Diamonds's enthusiasm was all an act, a make-nice with the New York crowd in the weeks after his debut was released. The Kaufman trick not so much, but the band did then (in)famously lead us around the block in the pouring rain, blowing out a Pied Piper recorder melody as the rain came down.

That ragged, not-sure-if-it's-all-an-act attitude pervades Islands' album Return to the Sea; in fact, pervades most of Nick Diamonds's work. You know -- "We're the Unicorns / And we're people too". I was a bit worried, as others have been, that Diamonds was doomed to waltz through life one seminal debut at a time, creating these almost perfect, quirky indie rock albums with different bands, then breaking up just when things were getting interesting. But Return to the Sea feels much more like a debut than a complete vision -- loose ends of ideas are thrown into songs or tacked on at the end: a lilting piano ballad springs, hidden-track-like, out of a far-off thunderclap and the sound of steady rain; alt-rap busts out of a lush rock background. But still the album emerges from it all as, if not totally cohesive, at times quietly revelatory.

That pseudo-rap song, or rather, indie amateur rap, is "Where There's a Will There's a Whalebone". Everyone seems to be going crazy about it, but apart from the quality (it's a good, not great, song), it doesn't belong on Return to The Sea. If Th' Corn Gangg ever released an album, maybe. But since whimsy is such a cornerstone of Nick Diamonds's creativity, when Busdriver's thin, over-enunciated rap pops up mid-album, it's hardly that much of a surprise.

The lyrics to Islands' songs follow this veiled pattern, too. If on "Swans (Life After Death)", ND is singing about Jonah and the whale, you wouldn't know it from all the talk of swans and frogs and rivers (somewhere about halfway through the song's compelling nine minutes' length, there's a lyric about climbing in the blowhole, looking out the wide mouth at the sea and sky). Whether he's being elliptical or tongue-in-cheek when he sings "If you ain't sweet to me, I'll desert you in a heartbeat / If you don't savour me, I'll salt you make you savoury", I have no idea, but it is a highlight of the song "If", with its simultaneous vulnerability and threat.

What is surprising is the consistent quality of the songwriting. Musically, Islands sound like a cross between the Unicorns and the Arcade Fire (with a bit of Architecture in Helsinki's eclecticism thrown in, as on the addictive standout "Rough Gem"). True, the band's flirtations with country and calypso aren't always successful, but when "Humans" drops its "There There" skeletons-in-the-closet guitar jangle, and this drawled brass tune emerges in glorious sludge, it's a great musical moment. The music also manages to convey a remarkably light texture, perhaps a function of the pizzicato accents in the violins that tinkle over "Humans", "Rough Gem", or Diamonds's vocal imitation of the same effect on "Don't Call Me Whitney, Bobby". What keeps these tunes fresh is a willingness to deviate from expected melodic structures: on "Swans" the melody, which is veiled to begin with, subtly twists and shades each time it comes back, instead of repeating straight.

I guess the real constant on Return to the Sea is this determination to rip whatever barrier there is between the performer and the audience to shreds -- to win us over by quirky goodwill. By the end of the album it's become more than obvious -- "Bucky Little Wing" is full of nostalgia and regret at aborted friendship, and at the end of "Jogging Gorgeous Summer", when Diamonds croons "Millions of sunsets, but the one I'll remember / Is the one where you told me you'd love me forever". He could just as easily be singing about his audience as a lover, but as long as Islands keep treating us to impromptu rain-dance jams and these complex, appealing songs, we'll continue to respond more than positively.

8

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image