Islands – [Live]

Monday, 01 September 2008

Basking in the summer sun, a crowd of beautiful young people gathered together with barbecue and plastic cups of beer on a recent Saturday to listen to the sun-drenched, island-flavored indie rock of Islands. Except we weren't on a tropical beach—we were in a parking lot on the east side of Manhattan, flanked by a highway and the not-particularly inviting waters of the East River. But then, Islands' songs are mostly about dying of thirst under a blistering sun, so perhaps it was the perfect setting.

Islands' founding members Nicholas Thorburn (aka "Nick Diamonds") and Jamie Thompson (aka ("J'amie Tambour") began their collaboration in 2000 as part of The Unicorns, a band whose shadow still looms over Islands' work. Their 2003 debut, Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone? was anarchic, melodic, lo-fi, lyrically obsessed with ghosts and death, and roundly well-received. Contemporaries The Hidden Cameras, The Russian Futurists, Junior Senior, and others had created a space for catchy and endearingly insane lo-fi pop songs, and Unicorns fit right in. The band went of a 13-month non-stop world tour. Not bad for a band whose songs often sounded like the soundtrack to an 8-bit horror house.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this sudden fame took its toll. The band began to talk about breaking up, on stage and off, claiming at one point that they were going to become a rap group called Th' Corn Gangg. It was a joke, but it wasn't—like when my dad used to say he wanted to eat BBQ sandwiches for dinner every night. I saw them in this late period, playing inside a cage in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, as party-goers roller-skated around them. They didn't say much and didn't play any songs I recognized. They broke up in late 2004.

That might have been it for them—just another group of bratty art school kids who had their moment in the sun. Instead, they have largely followed the outline they laid out in their song "Let's Get Known." On that track, with equal parts sneer and wish-fulfillment, Thorburn sings, "If we work real hard, we can buy some matching clothes for our live shows . . .Two spotlights shining, with all our work shown." The irreverent, stone-throwing Unicorns decided to get serious about being in a band—that band being Islands. Some people have never forgiven them (see the absolutely offended review of their most recent record on for proof).

Over two albums, 2006's Return to the Sea and this year's Arm's Way (this record without Thompson, who left the band in late 2006), Islands have been refining the anarchy of Unicorns into something more traditionally pop in structure and perhaps more widely appealing, while maintaining that kernel of insanity—the obsession with death has not gone anywhere, for example. Or, maybe, they've been pulling the soul out of their music, becoming increasingly sentimental and bland—depending on who you believe. The truth is somewhere in between.

In person, the band gives off a cool sheen of indie professionalism. Starting exactly when promised by the event organizers (a truly rare and remarkable feat itself) they burn through four songs without saying a word—and when they do eventually start talking, it's the kind of anti-patter that lets you know they'd rather not be pattering at all. Thorburn has a perfectly symmetrical blood splatter on his otherwise bone-white tank top; his iPod earbuds dangle from his pocket the entire set; his sunglasses match his pants. They were there to play irresistibly catchy Caribbean-flavored pop songs about death and smoke American Spirits—and they were all out of American Spirits.

They kick things off with "The Arm," the lead track from Arm's Way. The album version is already more straight-ahead rock than anything the band had done previously, and live they turn it up to 11. It's a promising start. Over the next 45 or so minutes, they play the more driving and uptempo tracks from their their two records—among them "Kids Don't Know Shit," "Pieces of You," and "Where There's a Will There's a Whalebone." For this last one, they bring up a guest MC to replace Busdriver, who's featured on the album version. Wearing a chef's apron, this MC ("Despot, from Queens," we're told), lays down some blisteringly fast rhymes and gets huge cheers from the crowd. He spends the rest of the set lobbing smoke bombs onto the stage.

The band sounds well-rehearsed and tight, honed from constant touring. The string/synth section of Alex and Sebastian Chow (no relation) are full and rich. Thorburn is on point, and has his emotive lead singer faces down pat. Not every new arrangement works—a somewhat stripped down "Don't Call Me Whitney, Bobby" that focuses even more on the syncopated guitars somewhat takes the wind out the track's sails. Still, they seem like they could do this all day.

And then, suddenly, the band is walking off stage. Confused, and likely suffering a touch of sun stroke, the audience stands in expectant silence for a few minutes before realizing they're supposed to clap for an encore. They oblige, and are rewarded with an extended jam on "Swans (Life After Death)." The lead track from Return to The Sea, it's a bouncy series of sketches about people suffering from exposure on a desert island that stretched for almost 10 minutes on record, and even longer on stage

The sun had slipped behind the clouds by this point, and dusk was gathering, but just as they launched into a guitar solo, they are suddenly re-illuminated. The song crescendos, the crowd cheers, and the sun is shining on Islands. At this moment, it seems pretty easy to figure out whether they've made the right decisions about the future of their group. They're here, they've put on a great show, and the heavens have parted for them. Just for good measure, Alex Chow wins the guitar raffle they hold after the concert. He's a bit embarrassed, and makes them re-raffle. Talented, dedicated, and humble—they grow them like that in Canada, I guess. Lucky for us.


“The Arm” from Arm's Way – [mp3]

Islands – Arm's Way is available now. Buy it on Amazon.

Related Articles:
In and Out of Arm's Way – Interview with Nick Diamonds

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