This was supposed to be the first great album of 2006, but the actual finished product falls a bit below expectations. Islands, if you didn't know, is fronted by former Unicorn Nick Diamonds. The Unicorns, if you didn't know, were one of the greatest pop bands of the new millennium, and their album Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone was an utter masterpiece of contorted pop. Unfortunately, this new album is not a masterpiece, though it does provide some interesting music.
It's difficult to take Islands' new disc Return to the Sea on its own terms, and keep from comparing it with the Unicorns' work. It most certainly is a different beast… less focused on unbridled melodic fun and sarcastic humor, this album is more concerned with presenting a coherent musical whole. That's not to say that this album isn't fun: song titles such as "Don't Call Me Whitney, Bobby" and "Where There's a Will There's a Whalebone" merely hint at the fun and mischief evident in this album's music. But it's decidedly less so than anything the Unicorns ever did, and this is far more serious music. The album opener, "Swans (Life After Death)" is at once the best example of this and the crowning achievement of the album. Clocking in at over 9 minutes, the song resembles Interpol's longer, more brooding tracks (especially "The New") than anything in the Unicorns oeuvre. But it is brilliant: led by liquid bass lines and a chugging drum beat into a shimmery guitar-led chorus, the song remains just on the verge of explosion.
Unfortunately, this is the only really new success that Islands is able to achieve. The album's other good songs (most notably "Rough Gem" and "Where There's a Will There's a Whalebone") mostly ape the Unicorns' former successes, and none of them really exceed their inspirations. There is nothing here to really compare with the irresistible breakdown of "Tuff Ghost" or the wonderfully violent opening riff of "Inoculate the Innocuous." The rest of the album is filled with somewhat interesting pieces that are ultimately failures: songs like "Humans," "Volcanoes," and "If" are too long for the ideas contained in them and become boring. The melodic sense of the album is never consistent, as it was for the Unicorns - good melodies will surface here and there, but their appearance is the exception rather than the rule. Also, Diamonds' voice, which worked well as a humorous counterpoint to the melodic apocalypse of the Unicorns, fails here as a leading instrument to a more straightforward and self-conscious music.
Ultimately, this is an interesting album, and "Swans" by itself shows that Islands has potential to create great music. But, they have not completely left the admittedly large shadow of their predecessors, and perhaps when they can establish their own identity they will fulfill their great promise.