Wednesday, October 21, 2009

First impressions of … Islands’ ‘Vapours’

An “impromptu” track-by-track review of Nick Diamonds’ latest album-of-the-year contender by Matthew R. Perrine:

Islands releases just belong on the open road.

To be fair, I’m probably more than a little biased. My first “moment” with the genius of frontman Nick Diamonds was listening to the second Islands outing, “Arm’s Way,” while traversing up and down Highway 53 late last winter. I was covering the new Bob Dylan exhibit at Ironworld — sorry, Minnesota Discovery Center — but my excitement for that wonderful ode to Duluth’s most famous native son somehow took the backseat to the enthralling sounds being produced by my Canadian “co-pilot”: That Islands record was all at once epic (the Who-y “In the Rushes”), clever (“Kids Don’t Know S---”) and, with songs like “Pieces of You,” unabashedly powerful.

It was deep enough to keep me entertained on a roadtrip but exciting enough to keep me from dozing off and taking out a few mailboxes. That is, it was the perfect highway companion.

Since that unforgettable afternoon and evening, I’ve since discovered the rest of Diamonds’ acclaimed output: the Islands debut, “Return to the Sea,” and the Human Highway side project. So, needless to say, I was more than a little excited to hear “Vapours,” which finds Islands welcoming Jamie Thompson back into the fold. (Thompson left the group after the release of “Return to the Sea.”)

Here are my thoughts on the new one, whose tracks, regrettably, haven’t been “road tested” yet:

1. “Switched On”
Stop sweating. While most of the mid-2000s “It” bands have proven to be just flashes in the pan, Islands is in it for the long haul: Not only is “Switched On” a beautiful continuation of the ever-expanding soundscape that was “Army’s Way,” it also manages to pull off a more accessible vibe, which should land the Canadian group some new legions of listeners.

2. “No You Don’t”
Wow, listen to that intro — Michael Jackson would be so proud! Diamonds and company are really taking Islands in bold new directions: After those “Thriller”-worthy opening notes, “No You Don’t” incorporates ear-pleasing elements of some of today’s favorite throwback genres (reggae, ’80s pop).

3. “Vapours”
This grooves like old-school Elvis Costello and the Attractions, and then there’s that brazen brass section … I’m starting to subscribe to Diamonds’ assertion that “Islands are forever.” These tracks will surely be pumping on my stereo for years to come.

Another chance accolade: This is the best title track in some time.

4. “Devout”
Given the booty-shaking foundation this one sits on, a quick DFA remix and “Devout” will be rattling all the world’s dance floors in no time.

5. “Disarming the Car Bomb”
If this is an attempt at getting political, I’m not hearing it, because I’m too busy concentrating on ways to describe this expertly-pieced-together gem: Take any ubiquitous Robert Palmer backing track, throw in some of those guitar riffs preferred by Frank Black and … oh, hell, just go listen to it. No amount of flowery prose will effectively get across how amazing this track is.

6. “Tender Torture”
Again, is this about foreign wars? Or tickling? Nevermind, it doesn’t matter; this is simply midtempo gold. If Moby were to produce more rock bands (or any…), there’d be a lot more mood-elevating No. 1 shots in the world sounding just like this.

7. “Shining”
Kind of a snoozer, though, to be fair, there’s a buildup near the “dénouement” that’s at least a little rewarding.

8. “On Foreigner”
A strange little piece of tape. Did this psychedelic reel escape from the Flaming Lips’ acid-washed “Embryonic” by chance?

That’s not to unfairly dismiss this dreamlike affair, however, as it possesses impressive parallels to Danny Elfman’s Tim Burton-related body of work (the “Edward Scissorhands” theme in particular). I approve.

9. “Heartbeat”
Auto-Tune? Why? Is this some kind of “Gotcha!” response to Kanye West’s polarizing “808s & Heartbreak” album and its “Heartless” single?

Funny, I say that now, but this will probably be the one that lands Islands those aforementioned legions of fans. Which they deserve.

So, I guess, go on with your bad selves….

10. “The Drums”
Swimming in reverb, this is a fine return to form. Fans of Björk’s 1995 electronic pop masterpiece “Post” will find much to love here.

11. “EOL”
Perhaps a nod to the genius of Jeff Lynne, this track features a number of the tricks he employed with Electric Light Orchestra (or ELO, for those of you without any game). There are circling percussion grooves, crunchy guitar bits that sound as if they were molded in a more-adventurous 1950s and, evocative of that beloved group’s underrated 1981 album “Time,” trancelike synths that dance around in the background.

12. “Everything is Under Control”
Have you ever stood on the edge of an ocean — or, hey, maybe one of the Great Lakes — during a blustery storm and studied the crashing waves with such detached amazement that you totally forgot about all of life’s little problems? Good, because A) everyone needs a little release sometimes and B) this song is expansive enough to allow you to recapture that feeling and live it again and again, no matter where you are. Now that is a powerful piece of rock and roll music.

Listen to tracks from “Vapours” at

Matthew R. Perrine (aka me, the guy wrote this) is a reporter for the Duluth Budgeteer News. Read his regular Arts & Entertainment coverage at

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