Islands Return to the Sea

[Equator; 2006]

Rating: 2.5/5

Styles: indie pop
Others: The Unicorns, Andrew Bird, Paul Simon, Wolf Parade, The Arcade Fire

For die-hard Unicorns fans, Return to the Sea has the potential to be an intensely divisive album. In the diminishing wake of The Unicorns' sudden and still mysterious breakup, co-frontman Nick and drummer Jaime, along with a handful of other famous Canadian friends, have formed Islands, one of the most buzzworthy projects of the year. Hopes were high, not just for Unicorns fans, but for every teenager gazing north to pop mecca Canada. It's been difficult to open your browser these days without seeing that photo of them crowded together in a bedroom, mixing... something! Something that could end up being...track three of the new record! Or track eight even!! Oh, but what it might sound like! Just what are these pop visionaries concocting? What do they have up their sleeves!?

Of course I'm being cynical, but who can blame me. The moment of genius that was The Unicorns' Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone? (if one considers it a moment of genius) had all the signs of being a brief one, and one that, quite arguably, was due primarily to third member Alden Penner, evidenced by his meek but superior output. Granted, Return to the Sea is not, ostensibly, a new Unicorns record, but with revisited lyrics, themes, and a not-so-subtle tribute to Alden's and Nick's failed relationship, it might as well be. Still, with all this time and talk and talent, surely something good was bound to happen, as long as we let our guard down and resisted any preconceptions. Right?

A pessimist might expect a watered-down WWCOHWWG?, but what we get is an inflated, overblown mutation of it. The whole thing is burdened by an audible effort to make a great pop album, from the whistling to the clarinet solo to the tongue-clicking to the contrived naiveté in the idolatry of nature. It desires so badly to be quaintly epic, a crystallization of adolescent glee and terror in the face of the big big world and all its dangers and mysteries. None of this is inherently problematic, but with lyrics like "If early man really did mate with Neanderthal then/ Modern man is a mix of bestial sex," suddenly uninspired songwriting ceases to be your biggest shortcoming.

There are some redeeming qualities, but for every success there are one or two failures. The lumbering drudgery of nine-minute opener "Swans (Life After Death)" is mercifully disrupted by a blistering, even psychedelic final three minutes (albeit crowned by an embarrassingly amateur guitar solo). Then there's "Humans," which just kinda Elephant Sixes The Unicorns' "Tuff Ghost" and "Ghost Mountain" together; "Rough Gem," a worthy single, but ultimately a Unicorns song; "Whalebone," a dark, groovy number that could have been the album's best moment if it weren't marred by Subtitle and Busdriver, whose literal unintelligibility casts their rapping as a token eccentricity; a handful of forgettable shuffling folk-pop write-offs; "Bucky Little Wing," the aforementioned tribute to Alden and an old Islands staple – prefaced by five minutes of rain and thunder (really); and "Volcanoes," maybe their most singular statement in its bumbling reach for some kind of sublime grandeur, tremulous string section and all. Not to mention Nick's voice, which, left to fend for itself here, demonstrates an underdevelopment that no amount of overdubbing can hide. And let's not forget that atrocious cover art.

But why not choose to be optimistic about things? After all, this is Islands' debut effort, technically speaking. And in that regard, it could even be called promising. Besides, despite everything I've said, if this is your thing, you probably already know it. From where I'm standing, it's an historically interesting, mostly harmless (if misguided) footnote to The Unicorns and mile marker from the spring of 2006.

1. Swans (Life After Death)
2. Humans
3. Don't Call Me Whitney, Bobby
4. Rough Gem
5. Tsuxiit
6. Where There's A Will There's A Whalebone
7. Jogging Gorgeous Summer
8. Volcanoes
9. If
10. Ones
11. Bucky Little Wing

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