These songs, though well executed and mostly rising above the influences that inform them, pass by without delivering much impact
Wait, what? The Isles are from New York? No. They sound totally English. Oh, my God, I can't believe it! Another New York band aping Britpop influences. The Smiths, eh? Yeah, occasionally. Echo and the Bunnymen? Yeah, them too. Sure, there's some contemporarily updated quality to the whole enterprise with their shifting rhythms and song-as-unit conception, but -- ok, I'll come out with it -- I'm not sold on this whole Isles thing. In fact, pleasant as it is, isn't this music a bit... well, boring?
And don't confuse the Isles with Islands, Nick Diamonds's post-Unicorns effort. The two bands couldn't be more different -- where the latter incorporates a plethora of instruments to create quirky, likeable, and almost constantly changing indie rock, the Isles' understated acoustic-fueled compositions somehow seem to blend together. Singer Andrew Geller sticks to a small vocal range, a light tenor that often resets to the original note or phrase just when it seems as if the melody is about to wander into more adventurous territory.
It's really the opening track, "Major Arcana", that most screams Smiths, though Geller's voice is lighter and higher in tone than Morrissey's, so the song as a whole seems less of a revelation. Don't get me wrong; it's really pretty, and uses a circular loop of a theme to create complex, sophisticated indie pop. It's one of the brightest lights on the album -- it's just that it's also one of the most derivative. The band's at its most successful when it forgets the intricate guitar arrangements and lets the songs' natural prettiness shine. "Terraforming" has this kind of doomed ska feeling, as Geller sings "On to tomorrow, I hope it never comes"; the song stomps simpler and relaxes into a fun on-beat/off-beat rhythm.
The Isles seem eager to name-check the Strokes in the press, but there's not much similarity there. I think what they're getting at is this quality the Strokes have of capturing gleaming jewels of melodies buried within a song's texture. The thing that made Is This It so successful, though, was that everything surrounding those jewels was catchy, too -- so you had music that kept rewarding the first, as well as the fifth, time. And it is true that the Isles have a few of these pretty ideas on Perfumed Lands -- from the repetition of "you're fun to hate" in "Tropical Lamby", with its almost Animal Collective swirling rhythms, to "Flying Under Cheap Kites"'s hidden gem "I'd be dead, but there's nothing worth dying for".
But apart from these blips on the radar, the strum/jangle/jangle texture is so similar that the songs quickly fade into background. It's almost as if, amid all the crafting of guitar polyphony, the band forgot to differentiate each song. Geller has commented that the band "wanted to write songs that didn't rely on volume or delivery to have an impact." Unfortunately, sacrificing melody along with volume and delivery has created the opposite effect -- these songs, though well executed and mostly rising above the influences that inform them, pass by without delivering the impact as well.