Thursday, April 06, 2006

Return to the Sea

Islands - Return to the Sea
Equator, 2006

Sounds Like:
Mid-fi off-kilter pop
For: Fans of The Unicorns who are not looking for another Unicorns album.
Islands - Rough Gem

Alright, so I'll admit I was disappointed with this on first listen. The Unicorn's sole [proper] album, Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone? is a modern classic, and contains some of the most brilliant lo-fi pop I've ever heard. And that's not even the hyperboleous description. Needless to say, I've been looking forward to any and all post-Unicorns projects since they broke up, and this album in specific for nearly a year.

And, it is not a Unicorns album. I mean, sure, it had the creative song structures, some similar lyrical and instrumental motifs, and Nicholas Diamond's unmistakable voice. But it was a different beast all together (a chimera, perhaps?). Not that I initially thought it was a bad album, or otherwise an unworthy follow-up in terms of quality, but it seemed like I bought an album by a different band. At which point I had to remember that I did.

After that mental hurdle was cleared, there is a lot about this album to love. Jumping through several genres expertly, Islands effortlessly drops some truly great pop gems. "Volcanoes" starts with an apocalyptic spoken word sample over a thumping country intro, before inexplicably exploding into an anthemic second half. "Rough Gem" is a keyboard and string driven jaunt that would make Papa Stephen Merritt proud. But the album's real centerpiece is the dark, synthy "Where There's A Will There's A Whalebone," which not only serves as a tribute to the not-long-for-this-world Mad Corn Gangg, but is also one of this year's greatest songs.

But some things didn't change between bands. The "islands" theme plays a strong part in the album, ranging from the lyrical content (including the winking line in the great intro track, "Swans (Life After Death)," "I woke up thirsty/the day I died" on an island. In the sea.), to the surprising calypso influence on tracks like "Don't Call My Whitney, Bobby," and "Jogging Gorgeous Summer." Sense of humor, while more subtle, remains intact, along with a lyrical interest in the cute and the dead.

The only real mistake on this album is the unfortunate decision to tack on a hidden track, "Renaud." Pet peeves aside (and Christ, do I ever hate the "hey guys lets put 5 minutes of near-static ocean noises between the last two tracks!" mentality), it just disrupts the flow of the album. The song itself is quite good, and is an apt closing track. And so is the listed final song, "Ones." But, together, they merely extend the album beyond its natural conclusion. To play armchair producer, "Renaud" should have been placed between the fourth and fifth songs, or been delegated to B-side/one-off status.

Minor quibble aside, this is one of the best albums to come out this year, even if does not succeed in repopulating the world's unicorn population, and may be the pop album of this summer.



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