Islands - Hoxton Bar & Kitchen, London - 26/2/2008

02 Apr 2008

"the new material doesn't quite spark as often as they intended - this is undoubtedly a band in progress who are still getting to grips with both new material and new members..."


To those expecting an evening of lo-fi chirpiness from a band whose 2006 debut Return to The Sea really did conjure up images of sun-soaked tropical paradises, be warned. For one thing Nicholas Thorburn (a.k.a Nick Diamonds, the only remaining ex-member of The Unicorns in the current Islands line-up) isn't looking particularly chipper tonight - although whether that's just the Marcel Marceau-esque face paint he's sporting, or perhaps because his band didn't get to sound check, is unclear. Not that Thorburn isn't used to confounding his fan's expectations - he had a hand in dissolving The Unicorns just when they were poised to spearhead the avalanche of Canadian indie-rock a few years back. Instead they split and left it to Win Butler and co. to cash in - and they aren't doing too bad these days.

Since Return to the Sea, Islands have gone through almost a complete personnel overhaul - out went Jamie Thompson (a.k.a J'aime Tambeur, another ex-Unicorn) and in came, amongst others, violin and piano wielders Alexander and Sebastian Chow (or as they prefer to be known, The Super Chow Brothers, although of course they're not really brothers - that would be too easy for this band) - so a change in direction was pretty much inevitable. Most of tonight's set comes from new disc Arm's Way which drops in May via Rough Trade, and although it's not quite as challenging as Neil Young playing Tonight's The Night to flare-wearing fans begging to hear 'Heart Of Gold' on repeat, the unfamiliarity understandably creates a fair bit of tension betwixt crowd and band, not helped by the atmosphere-devouring black hole that is the Hoxton Bar & Kitchen.

So it's away with the light-hearted cuteness at the centre of songs like 'Ruff Gem' and in its place a much darker musical core, underpinned by muscular yet vibrant six-string bass lines and sporadic baritone sax and melodically defined by both the Chow brothers' swooping string lines and Thorburn's ragged guitar duels with Patrick Gregoire. Tonight Islands, and Thorburn in particular, seem on a mission to prove that they are more than just a whimsical indie-pop band - and at times these songs sound like they really could stand up against the best of the Arcade Fire and their epic ilk.

Unfortunately the new material doesn't quite spark as often as they intended - this is undoubtedly a band in progress who are still getting to grips with both new material and new members and at times the sheer denseness of sound means that Thorburn's voice struggles to find a space for itself. However, something about tonight's performance suggests that, given time, the re-jigged Islands could be onto a winner. Once Arm's Way is on stereos and the Montreal sextet are back on a London stage playing it to newly familiarised ears, I'd wager that most of those frowns will be turned upside down.

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