JTM Grade: 75%
Nick Thorburn and The Unicorns' Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone? is a perfect album. Too perfect as it turns out. Those damn expectations will forever be looming in the background for me. I desperately want Nick's Islands to repeat that same magic, and I'm always let down. Not fair at all, I know. Islands is a natural extension of The Unicorns. Nick is progressing and definitely going somewhere...he has no reason to look back. Plus, Islands is a very good band, and their debut release, 2005's Return to the Sea, was also very good. But it ain't The Unicorns, and I guess I'll always hold that against them. Fair or not. Just like if Neutral Milk Hotel ever tried to top In The Aeroplane...they just couldn't. Unfortunately, Jeff Mangum knows this and won't even give it a shot. So at the very least, Nick is still working hard and doing it well.
Arm's Way is a testimony to that hard work and it is no small undertaking for the listener either. Eight tracks clock in at over 5 minutes, three of those are 7+. Within a single song, you'll find two or three songs mini-suites within, each with distinctive structures and melodies. More often than not, the compositions are packed full of wondrous pop nuggets, but the schizophrenia can also throw things off track and at times, induce a sort of numbing effect. Can you have too many hooks? For example, there's this wonderful segment from 'In The Rushes' and I keep wishing Nick would just stick with this one melody and chorus, but no, he just teases us with it for maybe a minute before moving on to another thought. You can't just pull out this amazing hook, and leave us hanging there, drooling for more! Well, he does and he can. He does it repeatedly, in fact. And so it's impressive, even if it isn't always satisfying. I'm one of those nostalgic guys, longing for the short, rusty pop songs of The Unicorns. A bit of that will always be there with Islands as Nick continues to play the same game of genre-bending, catchy pop. Only now he's amping up the orchestra, and aiming for something much more grand (and long). Good luck with that.
Good things, when short, are twice as good.
~Baltasar Gracian, The Art of Worldly Wisdom
Here's a pic I took of Nick in full whiteface during a SXSW Islands performance earlier this year. They will be in town to play a show at First Avenue on June 3rd. And lastly, head over to Daytrotter for the Islands session let loose earlier today.