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Islands

Middle East Downstairs, Cambridge, MA

November 4, 2009

Looking a little like I’d imagine a Jedi-Elvis impersonator might, Nick Thorburn, (a.k.a. Nick T, formerly Nick Diamonds) lead singer of Islands and vanguard of the Montreal music scene, took the stage, and, with an aloofness characteristic of his interviews and performances, enchanted Wednesday’s audience.

The opener, Jemina Pearl, lead singer of the now defunct Be Your Own Pet, took her solo act on the road by finding three similarly garage-oriented musicians, and then pouring her voice over ineptly distorted punk chords. In my meaningless-but-mean opinion, the Middle East could have saved some cash and played a bootleg copy of any Sleater-Kinney album to similar effect.

The crowd, tall and eclectically composed of those there for Jemina Pearl and Islands, responded exuberantly to Thornburn’s equally eclectic oeuvre, exhibiting huge energy through the fast songs, and singing along to the slower, more meandering pieces from Island’s catalog. Playing all but two songs from their new album Vapours, the band members displayed easy confidence, even through the more electrically complicated songs that required looping and synthesizing.

Vapours follows the slightly disappointing second album Arm’s Way, but makes up for the brief regression by astounding listeners with a surprising array of musical styles, each executed differently, but uniquely Islands-esque. Built around guitar chords and heavily reliant on their ever-present synthesizer, Islands songs each explore a different rhythmic or melodic device, but rarely lose the more traditional indie-rock sound entirely. Fearing no musical risks, many of their most unexpected songs turn out to be their best. The ninth track of Vapours, “Heartbeat,” sounds like it was written by the illegitimate love-child of Nick T and one of the robots from Daft Punk — if that child had grabbed a handful of valium, crushed it, and snorted it through a party hat before composing. (Needless to say, it is currently the most played song on my computer.)

In addition to Vapours, Islands also played the two best songs off Arm’s Way and several off their groundbreaking first album Return to the Sea including the playful “Rough Gem,” the opaque “Where There’s a Will, There’s a Whalebone,” and the epic “Swans.” With unexpected instrumental aptitude, all three non-drumming members of the band proved capable of arming up an axe and whipping out cogent, compelling solos. Most surprising was Thorburn’s own live mastery. His pedal-tuned and lingering solo to close the concert’s encore left the crowd subdued and complacent as, with heads ringing from reverb, we climbed the stairs to the street.

While each song was beautifully executed, the set list was poorly constructed, and towards the end, a series of three slow songs (including the worst track from Vapours) left the crowd a little disengaged. Adding to the disengagement was Thorburn’s own disinterest, as he spoke approximately 25 words to the audience over the course of the evening.

So why listen to Islands? A. Nick Thorburn basically discovered The Arcade Fire! I’ll repeat that: he discovered the motherfucking Arcade Fire. B. He fronted the motherfucking Unicorns. C. He, like many people who are too afraid admit it in public, realizes that Vampire Weekend is terrible, and recently called them “inauthentic” and “frat-rock” in an interview. D. Islands, channeling musical influences from around the world and turning them into unique, approachable rock music, remains one of the few truly progressive independent bands out there. Try them out. You won’t be disappointed.