Hear ye, hear ye -- the Islands have clearly discovered the joy of violins and guitars. And man, are they going to work it for all it's worth.
But that isn't the only change in the Islands' sound in their sophomore album "Arm's Way." The entire album is brimming with unabashed energy and blazing weirdness that their first album dabbled in (remember "Jogging Gorgeous Summer"?), but with more gritty rock'n'roll and more exuberantly colorful indiepop. All together. Sometimes in the same song. Yeah, this is a delicious little summertime soundtrack.
It opens with a dizzying psychedelic swirl that tightens up into a roar... and suddenly evolves into a tight melody of dramatic violin and guitar. "Breathe in deep/I want you to/That's why the arm came for yoooouuuuu," Nicholas Thorburn sings cheerfully, as he flails through crazy denial about "lifeless carcass in a bad ass car crash/Hopefully you wake up soon..." One part of the song has him yowling "You're mine!" over and over.
And that slightly insane approach carries over into the anthemic rock'n'roll of "Pieces of You" ("They found your bones in the homes of a thousand little gnomes/who've taken pieces for decoration") and the yowling punky "J'aime vous voire quitter," which is one of the few songs on the album that simply does not work. Seriously, it's all hard edges.
Fortunately they get back to their better work after that -- the herky-jerky blasts of "Abominable Snow," riff-heavy rock riddled with wispy organ, delicate guitar ballads, fuzz-edged rockers that melt into twinkly indiepop, stately pianopop that soaks down into a solemn lush melody. It finishes off with an eleven-minute finale rippling with countryish mellotron and sprightly, elaborate epic stretches.
"Arm's Way" might not immediately endear itself to those expecting a direct copy of the Islands' debut -- I was initially disappointed by the heavier, rockier sound. But the Islands don't seem able to keep a supposed straight face throughout any of the songs -- even the punky "J'aime vous voire quitter" eventually devolves into a joyous, bouncy pop melody with lots of wacky lighthearted noises and a vaguely Mexican flavor.
And by the time you've heard it through once or twice, the lighthearted pop under the heavy guitar riffs starts to shine through. They may dabble in darker rock rhythms, but they're still the Islands we know and love.
Those gritty driving riffs and incisive percussion are often the least fascinating part of songs like "Kids Don't Know Sh*t," and so it's a relief when the melodies turn weird, or poppy, or stretch out into wild epics. And the Islands weave in some other instrumentation -- brilliant wibbling keyboard melodies, exotic percussion, shivering tinny distortion, plinking piano, and a tambourine buildup in the gleefully suspenseful "I Feel Evil Creepin' In."
And the violins take a front-row seat in this album, far more so than before. The opening number has lots of over-the-top ELO-style violins, but the rest of the album takes a subtler approach.
One thing that has not changed at all -- the dark weirdness of their lyrics. In his smooth, soft voice, Thorburn sings of dwindling resources, denial about death, a bandmate quitting, and modern living -- all wrapped in a surreal cloak of Hydian nastiness-on-the-inside, seed stories, gnomes, and frozen heads in outer space. All spun in very evocative words ("life is a loose tooth leaving your mouth... and now the ground is coming up my sleeves/pick me up so I can fall back down again/descending into vertigo...").
"Arm's Way" takes some new risks with the Islands' sound. And while a couple songs have too much ordinary guitar rock, the album overall ends up quirky, danceable and enjoyable. Lots of energy, and lots of weird.