Confused Seas Surround Islands at the Black Cat

Canadian band Islands, with frontman Nicholas Thorburn third from right.
Canadian band Islands, with frontman Nicholas Thorburn third from right. (
Saturday, May 24, 2008

Nicholas Thorburn, frontman for Montreal indie rockers Islands, is someone with a short attention span and too many ideas. He disbanded his former group the Unicorns after just one critically acclaimed album and took a brief indie/hip-hop detour as Th' Corn Gangg before re-emerging as Islands. All the band-shifting, though, hasn't resulted in more focused work. On Thursday at the Black Cat, Islands played a set featuring overstuffed songs that would have worked better if more than a couple of ideas contained within were, well, any good.

Thorburn gets creativity points for eschewing traditional song structures, but an encore performance of "Swans (Life After Death)" was the only time his schizophrenic style resulted in something memorable. The song's stylistic shifts were seamless, and its big rock coda was well-earned. But the rest of the set was filled with a bunch of disconnected, overly orchestrated sections that were haphazardly jumbled together and called songs. The band frequently incorporated two violins, and even used a chain for percussion, but there was nothing particularly experimental about the music. Instead, it felt like repeated swings and misses at highbrow, art-rock epics.

Those were still better than "Life in Jail," during which the combination of saxophone, violin and a vaguely funky backbeat brought to mind the Dave Matthews Band or Rusted Root, yet was somehow more irritating. Islands' second album, "Arm's Way," was released Tuesday, and Thorburn told the sizable crowd that "it was pretty painful" to be sitting on the new songs for so long, "but it's all good now." Only the former sentiment was true of Thursday's performance.

-- David Malitz

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