Album Review: Islands – Vapours

They say no man is an island. Well, try telling Nicholas Thorburn, a.k.a. Nick Thorburn, a.k.a. Nick Diamond, that and he might frown upon you because he knows just as good as we know: that he’s one of a kind. Swiftly changing styles and settings like some bizarre chameleon cross-breeded with a cheetah he has figured in the poppy band The Unicorns, the obscure indie hip hop outfit Th’ Corn Gangg, and the quirky-corky folk/pop/rock/whatever duo Human Highway. Today he is perhaps more known as the foundation of Islands: one of Montreal’s most beloved and renowned indie bands. It is with Islands, the band whose 2006 debut album Return To The Sea poked around in quite a few critics’ and indie rock fans’ hearts and whose 2008 follow-up Arm’s Way baffled the very same audience with its vigorous ambitions and overwhelming sound, that Thorburn has grown to be somewhat of an indie darling — or at least a name to put in your mind’s “remember” file.

Perhaps it sounds harsh to state that Vapours is the (one-man) band’s least ambitious work to date but even Thorburn has stated that this third album is a much more stripped-down affair. Conducting a consequently minimal approach to the songwriting and production he makes Vapours into the alluringly catchy beginner’s indie pop-sound album that would have made more sense as Island’s debut album. To start the career with Vapours to gradually build up the triple-album discography climaxing in the epic Arm’s Way would have been the logical order of appearance. But then again, Islands, masterminded by the slightly impulsive Thorburn, isn’t exactly a logical band on record.

Clocking in at 42 minutes, featuring anti-extravagant pop songs all under the five minute mark, Vapours is the new, slimmer, diet version of Islands that many would’ve hoped for. On the other hand, if you were a fan of the carefully orchestrated and vivid folkrock touches from the two previous albums, Vapours may also come as a little less wanted surprise. Not only are the songs shorter, their arrangements are also pretty light-weight leaving the hooks to be highlighted and the melodies enough air to breath and frolic. A new band lineup and a new set of instrumentation — most notably featuring prominent synths, drum machines and sequenced programming — has lended Islands a chance for a less traditional (in what extent Islands were ever traditional, that is!) take on sly indie pop.

At times, the result sounds really promising, such as on the dance-poppy intro to “Devout”, featuring Thorburn’s dramatic whisper-singing on top of a deep kick drum, a cute techno bassline, dreamy background ambiance and house-hinting piano. Or the afro-feel drum-lead intro to the opener “Switched On” that lands somewhere between Hot Chip’s “One Pure Thought” and the work of The Very Best. But, unfortunately, as on many songs on Vapours, it doesn’t really take off the way you’d wanted it to. Thorburn has seemed insistent on not letting himself drift off into his own little mental world, scared as if it would’ve resulted in himself overdoing things again. Most songs trot along in a pleasant and harmless pace keeping them pretty down-to-earth. Even the lyrics, which in the past of Thorburn’s career often have reflected subjects of death, car crashes, and other hazey, darker subjects, are more light-hearted and unpretentiously peculiar.

Then what saves Islands from suddenly performing a 180 and become a “bland” indie band? Well, if you excuse my exaggerated interest in this review for the frontman, Thorburn will always be Thorburn. If titles alone like “Disarming The Car Bomb” or “Tender Torture” don’t prove his authenticity as a quite original lyricist and overall songwriter, then it’s his self-willed ways to lead his band into new territories that will. There’s no shame in producing adequate and fully operative indie pop songs and sprinkle them with enough personality, charm and healthy obstinacy to keep the listener interested and coming back for more. The title track is an example of a sweet pop trifle whose taste lingers in my ears for quite some time while “Heartbeat”, despite its hopelessly unoriginal title, is listenable over and over again only to hear Nick Thorburn use a vocoder.

So, never quite as emotionally engaging as certain spots on the overall impressive Arm’s Way or coming near the smorgasbord qualities of the diverse Return To The Sea, Vapours is another album that continue painting on the dizzy picture that is one of Canada’s most interesting indie bands. As long as Thorburn’s in the game, doing whatever the hell he feels inclined to do at the moment, Islands will be a warmly welcomed recurring VIP guest on the scene. Perhaps they’ll never have a (indie) hit single, and, if my experience gives me the right notion, Thorburn will neither have one with his debut solo breakout album, which he is currently working on. Nonetheless, right now it feels good that he’s not yet an island. He is plural.

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