Islands, ‘Arm’s Way’

By • May 20th, 2008 • Category: Album Reviews

There’s a moment less than two minutes into Islands’ sophomore LP when front man Nick Thorburn muses, “You faded into a different shade/a completely different hue.” He bellows the line during the lead single, “The Arm,” hanging on each word seemingly for both melodious and contextual emphasis. Sure, each note needed to be dragged out in such a way and held with a certain conviction for the verse to fit. But Thorburn delivers the words with the snarling intent of a scorned ex. Although it’s just one phrase tucked among a dozen tracks and more than an hour of music, this “it’s not me, it’s you” sentiment sets the record straight from the get-go: Islands always has been his band. In fact, so were The Unicorns.

If there was any doubt who was responsible for the two groups’ lo-fi, swirling experimentation and psychedelic pop, Arm’s Way eliminates the confusion. When The Unicorns split in 2004 after a lone acclaimed LP, Thorburn and drummer Jaime Thompson hid themselves away in their Montreal digs and reemerged a year later, calling themselves Islands and armed with a stellar new album. But even with all the chunky keys and stomping drums, all the multiple harmonies and hook-laced vocals, the similarities remained between the two respective debuts. (Which makes sense, considering two-thirds of the bands were the same.)

Yet Arm’s Way marks Thorburn’s first Thompson-less Islands effort: the drummer left the songwriting duo in 2006. However, little has changed, as the front man is quick to point out during that almost six-minute opening track. His performance never altered. His focus hasn’t wavered. He’s the same Nick “Diamonds” Thorburn, and his latest full-length is dead-set on reminding us of that.

But there really is no need for the singer’s blatant statement in the opening moments of the album. The comparisons to his previous works are evident. Despite the claims that his 2008 output is the first full-band effort, the follow-up incorporates all the same hypnotizing soundscapes and grandiose structures of his entire rock catalog. From the stop-on-a-dime changes of “Life in Jail” to the slow building 11-minute grooves of the closer “Vertigo (If It’s a Crime)”, from the electronic undertones of “Creeper” to the symphonic “To a Bond”, today’s Islands is unmistakably Thorburn. No amount of pre-release PR is going to change that. He can recite all the proper rhetoric about how this current sextet is his ideal lineup, and how Arm’s Way is the most collaborative work of his career, his music – and lyrics – say otherwise. And if that wasn’t enough, so do his song titles, like the brilliantly punned “J’aime Vous Voir Quitter,” which translates to “I’d like to see you leave”.

It looks like he got his wish, and any speculation about who deserves the credit – or blame – now falls squarely on Thorburn’s shoulders. Which, apparently, it always should have.

Soundcheck Magazine, May 2008

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