May 20, 2008

Shortcut—Arm's Way, by Islands

[img id="80624" align="alignleft"] The Unicorns' widely acclaimed Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone? was one of the most solid, promising, and fun releases of 2003; it left a good impression of what morbid indie experimental pop was supposed to be.

Sadly, the Unicorns broke up, and we will probably never see its three members—Nick Thornburn, Alden Penner, and Jaime Thompson—together again. But Thornburn, formerly Nick Diamonds, has pledged to keep trudging on no matter what. He and Thompson teamed up with other musicians to form a new band, Islands. But Thompson left Islands in the spring of 2006, and now, of the three original members of the Unicorns, we are down to just one—Thornburn.

Sadder still is the fact that each album Thornburn has been a part of since 2004 has effectively demonstrated the need for his former bandmates to make music of the same caliber; one of the best songs on Islands' 2005 debut Return to the Sea was actually written with the Unicorns.

Thornburn still has plenty of creative spirit left, though; it is just that on Islands' second full-length, Arm's Way, he lets himself go too far. Most of the album finds Thornburn and crew in that sad state of trying to be too grand or epic—not that cellos and violins are a bad idea; they actually fit quite nicely—but his wails of empty lyrics are just disappointing sometimes.

Whereas 2005's Return to Sea was neo-psychedelic, hip-hop experimental, quirky, and partly lo-fi, the formula for Arm's Way seems to be one of swelled strings, hyper-energetic drums, and wavering falsettos. The strings are perfect at times, as is the drumming and rhythmic variation; the problem is Thornburn's writing. Somewhere in the past two years, he lost the knack for witty, ironic verses and traded them in for hackneyed generalizations.

Songs like "We Swim" and "Kids Don't Know Shit" come off a little insincere, in addition to being just plain dumb. On first listen, "Pieces of You" sounds ridiculously trite as well (the chorus has Thornburn singing the title), but it actually refers to cut up pieces of flesh and something else about killing, so I suppose he gets some points for being morbid and different; also, the whispering electric chords and squeaky violin in the last 50 seconds are beautiful.

The single, "The Arm," is a complex, comprehensive, but slightly too long rock masterpiece. Whatever the "arm" is referring to, we know it is some symbol of salvation: "Breathe in deep, I want you to/ That's why the arm came for you/ Help you up, help you out/ To help you through/ That's why the arm came for you."

As a play on the phrase "in harm's way," the title track plays nicely and still has that ironic tone Thorburn should be proud of by now. The electric riffs rock, the piano harmonizes, the drums boom and crash, and his falsetto weds perfectly with every up, down, slow, and fast movement.

The first four tracks ("The Arm" included) are hyperactive, with drastic tempo and melodic shifts at the end of each song. They perfectly highlight the major talent of this now-six piece collaborative: dynamic instrumentation. The ability to incorporate classical, pop, rock, and hip-hop influences into their music has been, and still is, the key to their occasional success, but even with the ability to create those intricate and expansive works, Islands sound better when they strip their newfound formula down.

"Creeper" is a clean, danceable jam with palm-muted guitars and horror-flick strings that throw back to the 1980s, while a few simple cello notes drive "To a Bond" to end with reverb drenched in "oohs" and "ahhs." "In the Rushes" also succeeds with a twangy electric guitar, muffled screams, and a nerve-wracking violin line—creepy rock may be the correct term for it— until there is a sonic shift in mood, and Thornburn tells us over a xylophone that we are forgotten.

The rest of the songs comprise a mess of an album that is front-loaded and ultimately too long. Islands recently lost another member and, along with that, the quirkiness and irony that really set them apart from the other violin-tinged pop-rock groups out there. They have proved themselves able to construct those perfect pop gems in the past, and I urge Thornburn to complete his epic transformation before the next album, since it will be a very natural progression.

He should refer to the secret track on "Return to Sea," where he perfectly captures the essence of a soft pop ballad by singing above only a bare piano and occasional harmonies. Or maybe he should revert to the whimsical "Volcanoes," where he tries to warn listeners about the impending ice age and end of the world. He has what it takes to open an album perfectly—just finish the job next time!