Islands – Return to the Sea

I have a theory. The evidence is a little circumstantial, but then it is only a theory. So here it is – All those American conscientious objectors to Vietnam, the ones that headed north and invaded Canada, they probably took their guitars up with them, right? So that they could gently strum protest songs and impress all the girls in the commune. Well anyway, that army of anti-war soldiers, they had kids. Kids that grew up secretly thinking of invading America with their guitars. A new underground army of musicians, but this time they would all be ridiculously talented and embarrass the Americans who were supposed to be the leaders in the indie-rock wars. There simply has to be some explanation for the sheer number of quality Canadian bands that have risen to now dominate the indie world. How do you account for Broken Social Scene, The Dears, Stars, Feist, Wolf Parade, New Pornographers and Arcade Fire?

That army of indie rockers has now added yet another battalion – Islands, which draws from the recently disbanded unit known to civilians as The Unicorns. After a lengthy tour in support of their Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone? album, The Unicorns split, though frontman Nick Diamonds and drummer J’Aime Tambeur continued to work together. First briefly as Th’ Corn Gangg, with rappers Subtitle and Busdriver, and now as the driving force of the seven piece Islands. All of which makes Return to the Sea not so much a debut, but a follow up to the Unicorns under a new name with some new members. Plus the occasional guest appearance from members of the aforementioned Arcade Fire and Wolf Parade, just to sweeten the deal that little extra bit.

Return to the Sea is very likely to be among the best albums you hear this year, if playful whimsy and vaguely junk-shop orchestration is your thing. Trust me these sounds are very fine things. Every time Islands changes tack it’s a perfect tactical manure, every instrument they add to the mix becomes yet another potent weapon in their attack. Resistance to their charms is practically useless. Like that beaten jacket you found in the back of the op-shop, this album should keep you both warm and suitably indie-fied this winter.

‘Don’t Call Me Whitney, Bobby’ is a jaunt of skittering drums, and perhaps the most upbeat sing-along bout dangerous weight loss ever recorded – aided by morsel bites ‘do-do’ backing vocals:

/The sleek, sleek skeleton I hold/
where are the hidden folds/
where is the meat that you eat/

It’s quickly followed by album highlight ‘Rough Gem’, glinting with a melody so cute that Architecture in Helsinki would gladly part with their entire wardrobe of stripped jumpers just to borrow it for an afternoon.

Tsuxiit’ provides a brief instrumental intermission before ‘Where There’s A Will There’s A Whalebone’, which defies logic and flirts with genius. Islands adopt a tougher stance and sound with Diamonds singing over submarine echoes of guitar and soaring organ, but the master stroke comes when he passes the mic to Corn Gangg-ers Subtitle and Busdriver. Whalebone tears up the indie rock rule book by managing to merge indie-rock whimsy with underground rap intensity. It takes the indie and rap idea of the Slack album mash-up (Jay-Z’s Black Album rhymes over music from Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted), but actually makes it work.

/Jogging Gorgeous Summer gazes towards/
Millions of sunsets, but the one I’ll remember/
Is the one where you told me you’d love me forever/

It’s not hard to fall for a song that features steel drumming, cheap electronics and whistling. Then just when you’re falling for them, Islands twist the heart strings into knots with ‘If’, featuring a heartbreaking clarinet solo combined with Diamonds yearning threat:

/If you ain’t sweet to me, I’ll desert you in a heartbeat/

It’ll leave you smitten.

Canada wins again.