Islands - Return To The Sea

Mike Mantin 03/04/2006

Rating: 5/5

They say the review should do the talking, not the star rating, but when you've got five gleaming stars to the right of you there, it's hard to ignore them. So put it this way: Islands' debut album 'Return To The Sea' is a natural successor to all the albums I have (or would have) given five stars in the last couple of years: it's got the memorable tunes and endless replayability of the Shins' 'Chutes Too Narrow', the epicness of the Arcade Fire's 'Funeral', the denseness and variety of the last two Broken Social Scene albums and the lyrical wit of Sufjan Stevens' 'Illinois'.

Islands are a Canadian (where else?) group formed from the ashes of tragically short-lived indie-pop weirdos The Unicorns, whose 2004 album 'Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone?' was a masterpiece of Casio keyboards and warped storytelling. 'Return To The Sea', which features most of the original Unicorns plus a couple of guests (the string section is comprised of members of The Arcade Fire and A Silver Mount Zion), does away with the Unicorns' pound-shop instruments and replaces them with, well, pretty much everything.

It's an incredibly varied album, veering from a traditional twee-pop guitar arrangement (the short, sweet 'Don't Call Me Whitney, Bobby') to steel-drum-assisted calypso ('Jogging Gorgeous Summer') via a continuation of the rapping that The Unicorns hinted at on sinister highlight 'Where There's A Will There's A Whalebone'. If that sounds like a recipe for self-indulgent disaster, forget it: the consistently wonderful songwriting makes it a joy to listen to. And that's where the fifth star comes from: as well as being startlingly different, 'Return To The Sea' will end up superglued into your stereo. After god-knows-how-many spins, I'm yet to tire of the dystopian survival tale 'Humans' or the ridiculously catchy 'Rough Gem', keyboard-drenched classic which addresses 'serious issues' (in this case, the diamond trade) while somehow maintaining the surrealism that punctuates the album. With so many streetwise new bands making it big by 'telling it how it is', it's nice to know there's still a few talented freaks singing about Alaska melting or rapping about whalebones.

Even as the album moves into its second half, which isn't quite as immediately awesome as the first, there's still a fair supply amount of niceties and curios. 'Volcanoes' and 'If' are the standouts, managing to be simultaneously tuneful and lyrically bizarre. The former begins with a demonic monologue in which a demon (“killed in 1936 by my brother”) predicts a kind of reverse global warming in 2006, the latter has the sweetest melody on the album but also the rather unnerving threat of, “If you're not sweet to me, I'll desert you in a heartbeat”. You'll have plenty of fun trying to figure out what's going on in their distinctively warped minds. Islands, then: by turns witty, twee, weird and original: five automatic stars in my book.