May 20th 2008
There is a history here, a Montreal history that I don’t understand. The accolades that have pushed Island’s second disc onto the shelves of every major record retailer must be rooted in the friendships the band enjoys within the tightly knit music community of Montreal. With the support of members and former members of Arcade Fire, The Unicorns, and Wolf Parade, Islands recorded and released their debut Return to the Sea. Now they have come at us again hoping that some of that earned cachet and the fostered connections will provide a favorable lens through which to judge their newest effort. I just don’t have it in me to see it their way.
Making a playlist of my favorite Canadian bands would take hours, but I know that Islands probably would not be on the list. There are very few things I like less than an album, which shows all the signs of greatness, is striped of its pretty packaging and exposed as a fraud. I loved the psychedelic loving images from the cover of Arm’s Way, framed by what looks to be a hacked open chest cavity. The pink flesh color reveals a stylized Eden complete with a mushroom cloud and burning car, the outer edges of which, when looked at closely, reveal a wound composed of suggestive yet ambiguous pink parts. But even when you tear away that cellophane wrapping, the disc never looses its status as a packaged product.
Islands’ style is an amalgamation of everything pop. It is hard to deny their song writing abilities. Nicholas Thorburn’s, former vocalist of The Unicorns, brings tons of energy and talent to Islands. The song Abominable Snow, written prior to the formation of Islands, is a great tune with dense textures that allow the sounds of every instrument- guitar, violin, keys- to ebb and flow in volume. Kids Don’t Know Shit is a passionate track that lyrically walks the balance beam between sarcasm and sincere judgment of the supposedly oblivious youth. There are many elements of Arm’s Way that naturally lend it to a favorable review.
The record’s flaws do not come from the writing aspect, although I might suggest that many if not most of the lyrics are uninteresting. No, Islands’ problem comes in the production and conceptualization of Arm’s Way. The maturity that they sought to express ended up painting their project with a veneer of contrivances, caricaturing a style that they and others popularized previously. Songs like The Arm fail to reach the level of epic depth that they overtly are attempting. You do not achieve anything simply by adding a violin run here and there. J’Aime Vous Voire Quitter begins well conceived, but the chorus jolts the listener from good to poor taste before it pulls another punch to the senses when it erupts into La Bamba.
For all it lacks, especially in the first half of the record, Arm’s Way still has enough buoyancy to make a listen worth while. Vertigo closes well. Although it plays lyrically with the often appealed to image of being picked up just to fall down again, the somber vocal melody and full guitar orchestration generate genuine moments of grandeur. But the excellence of this track does much to remind the listener of how little the record offered in its introduction. Islands may be forever but cachet can be exhausted like any other currency.
Return to the Sea- 2006