Sunday, March 29, 2009

Two Thousand Eight - 4. Islands - Arm's Way

Usually, even if I make an act like I don't understand why certain bands aren't huge and famous and popular - the Drones for instance, as Pitchfork noted in their review of Havilah last week, are one of those bands. But really, it ought to be pretty obvious why people wouldn't like them. They're just too bleak, and it's a very heartening fact, actually, that people at large would think that. Life would be significantly worse if everyone went around talking about war and death and being all, "maybe you should just die" all the time. Makes for great music, but not necessarily the type of thinking everyone should try to embrace.

But the quickness with which people lost interest in Islands is something of a surprise to me. The Unicorns' first record was justifiably received as a landmark of idiosyncratic turn of the millennium pop music, and like, girls liked it. Guys liked it. Square people and hipsters both liked it cause it was good pop music that was fun. Turns out, as the story goes, that the Unicorns were so idiosyncratic that they broke up before they could make another record. But when they reformed like Voltron into Islands and put out Return To the Sea, it was well received. I recall people saying things like, "I really like that Islands record".

So why then, did nobody give a shit when Arm's Way came out last summer? I'll admit that when songs get longer and less linear I tend to get skeptical, but it's not like most of the songs on Return to the Sea were straightforward pop songs. There's no "Rough Gem", yeah, so my best guess is that the indie rock listening public saw this record as an example of a band abandoning their true identity in the name of artistic progression.

C'mon though, I mean, and really. Besides certain lyrical themes (death, fear, illness) and odd pop culture references ("Ready to Die", "Don't Call Me Whitney, Bobby"), there's nothing that really ties Unicorns/Islands together as a style, beyond the mercurial personalities of their members. Whimsy, you could call it, within certain bounds. The real problem, then, is that it's not a complete departure from RttS. It's the continuation of the band's interests away from traditional pop song structures towards something more baroque and composed. The reaction to the record then, can't be a, "wow these guys do something crazy and original every time the come out", which was the mindset up iuntil this record, but that now needs to be modified in the direction of, "ok, here's a band finding their voice". Whims are becoming more explicable, messages are becoming more focused.

This record was not received especially well, I think, because it's a solid record, rather than a revelatory one. Every song on here is very good, but no songs on here are as great as "Rough Gem", "Les Os", etc. That said, Arm has moments of brilliance that equal or exceed any heights Islands/Unicorns have previously reached.


The middle/end of "Abonimable Snow" is right up there with the Hair's "ghost" series in terms of expressing an endearingly naive, weirdly displaced, but very real fear of the supernatural.

"I Feel Evil Creeping In" hints more definitively than any previous Islands/Unicorns song at what, I think, anyone who listened closely enough to their first two records ought to realize: these guys are kind of bad news. They may be scared and their confused, but they've got a real mean streak in them. If you've ever seen an interview with Nick Thorburn, it's pretty clear that the guy is thorny in a way that's certainly different than the way, say, Lou Reed is thorny, or "rock stars" are thorny. You get the sense he's always had this charmingly innate distaste for things that could erupt at any moment.

The last two minutes of "In the Rushes". The main part of the song is sort of plodding and vague. Nothing anyone would be expected to remember or about which a letter would be written or a blog post written. But then - and when I first heard this song at a show in Montreal during February last year I broke into one of those laugh and smile fits that always strikes me when something totally wonderful and unexpected occurs during a show, usually regarding a new song or a song I've never heard before performed by a band for whom I hold a great deal of affection, once they got to this section - they break into an homage to/reimagining of the Who's "A Quick One While He's Away" that contrasts with the rest of the song in such a way that you kind of leave your brain for a hot minute. One of the best moments of pop music in 2008.

Labels: , ,


At Thu Nov 19, 09:44:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


Post a Comment

<< Home