Islands - Arm’s Way
Record Label: ANTI-Records
Release Date: May 20, 2008
Prepare to set sail and cry “bon voyage” before listening to Islands’ latest release, Arm’s Way, because by the end of the 68-minute journey, you’ll wish you were sailing in ship adrift on the clear blue waters of the Caribbean.
Arm’s Way finds Islands much more focused than in their 2006 effort Return to the Sea, and shows a band that has found an incredibly intelligent, original, and downright pleasing sound. They still utilize many different genres and tones (from reggae to pop to western), but the overall feeling is much less frenetic than in Return to the Sea, and the result is a much more fluid work as a whole.
As soon as the triumphant introduction (which includes a string section, an awesome guitar part, and a yelling outburst from lead singer Nick Thorburn) in “The Arm” begins, listeners become acutely aware that this album is going to be something special. Thorburn’s witty lyrics only enhance the song, and after a few listens, you will undoubtedly be singing along with Thorburn’s, “I could not hear / In a lifeless carcass / In a badass car crash / Hopefully you’ll wake up soon / Hopefully you do / I want you too / That’s why the arm came for you.”
Which leads me to one of my favorite aspects of this album: the dichotomy between the generally upbeat and even dancey (see “Creeper”) music and the odd, melancholic lyrics. Musically, “Pieces of You” is a fun little romp, that is, until you hear Thorburn sings the likes of, “They found your bones in the homes of a thousand little gnomes / Who’ve taken pieces of decoration / They’d open up their mouths / Seemed like peaceful little mouths inside they found / a mouthful of pieces,” or “Somebody died here / I hear it was you / They loved the attention / They got from killing you.”
Musically, though, Islands has never been better. The exotic elements of Return to the Sea make a major appearance in “J’aime Vous Voire Quitter,” a song about betrayal masked by a prickly guitar riff and quick tapping open hi-hat sixteenths. Right around the two-minute mark everything changes when Thorburn instigates an islandy (I don’t care if that’s not a word, or if it’s a pun) jam with a rolling-er yell. Ultimately, this ends up in an amalgam of steel drum beats, maracas, a horn section, and a bunch of jovial hooting that you will undoubtedly have you on your feet. “Abominable Snow,” a song that has been in Islands register in some form or another since they went under the moniker of The Unicorns, shows some great work on the keys and a bouncy drum beat that follows the trend set by “J’aime Vous Voire Quitter.”
“Creeper,” the standout song on the album, kicks in with a drum-machine dance beat and a singed guitar riff; and a song about a break-in-gone-wrong has never sounded so intriguing as when Thorburn sings, “Open my door thought I was alone but / Someone was hiding / In the dark room in my home,” over what could be mistaken for thick PVC pipes being banged together.
The pacing changes throughout the next four tracks, managing to simultaneously highlight a more slowed side and a more experimental side of Islands (both of which help in their own way in enhancing Thorburn’s eccentrically morose lyrics). A tense violin intro ushers in guitars that could have been pulled from White Album-era Beatles and eerie vocals from Thorburn, only to morph flawlessly into Cure-styled pop sounds in “Kids Don’t Know Shit.” “Life In Jail,” starts with Thorburn’s voice pondering, “Are you sure you want to spend your life in jail?” just above a whisper, and the song works into one of the best on the album (with some definite help from the theatric strings behind old-timey guitar strums). “We Swim,” nuzzles its way in with a Simon & Garfunkel-esque guitar opener, steadily seeping into a theatrical explosion of pianos, strings, cymbals, and Thorburn’s jubilant shouting.
The Jaws-style intro in “I Feel Evil Creeping In” transforms into a somber violin and guitar-led spook-fest, as highlighted when Thorburn sings, “The SOS was lost on me / My crew was swimming in a turgid sea / It was me who committed the felony / Take my hands, I love the blade / I’ll take suffering.” The album finishes strong with eleven-minute heavyweight “Vertigo (If It’s a Crime),” a track that showcases all the great little pieces of the album listeners have already come to love.
In Arm’s Way, Islands draws from innumerable musical eras and genres, and the result is one of the most entirely original and unique albums released this year. That’s not to mention the off the charts “fun” factor and incredible songwriting. Be warned: this album is not to be taken lightly. Dedicate some time to it, just listening and absorbing everything thrown at you over the course of the 68-minutes; you’ll thank yourself, I promise.