Nick T. and his Islands have returned, sporting the same effusive confusion and an obsession with death rarely seen since the passing (and many subsequent returns) of the Notorious B.I.G.
Much has been made of Radiohead’s progressive writing style, moving from part A to B to C, D, E, F, G, etc, and never returning thematically in a piece of music (e.g., A, B, A). Such was the supposed impetus behind the aptly named Kid A. We find much of the same at work in the music of Nick T, relentlessly moving from one unique movement to another, usually in the very same song. It’s as if The Unicorns’ short attention span got some glue (instead of Ritalin) and stuck a few random songs from Hair together. Despite this restlessness, most of the music is marked by an almost Phillip Glass-like repetition working underneath— think Islands’ “Swans (Life After Death)”— in songs such as “The Arm.” What does this add up to? Well, mostly addition.
Like Camille Saint-Saens “Carnival” suite, the new Islands album is an exercise in continually blending new and familiar elements and seeing where it takes you. More “pop” sounding than “Return to the Sea,” we can actually hear Nick T’s typically subdued voice come through almost clearly at times. It’s like seeing the nerdy kid take his Coke-bottle glasses off for the first time. Such a revelation is charming, but also makes you both miss and appreciate the quieter and weird moments from Return to the Sea.
Maximalist in the best way, Arm’s Way cues from Animal Collective and fellow Canucks Arcade Fire, while avoiding the overindulgent pitfalls of the uber-hipster Fiery Furnaces, whose Brooklyn Lager swigging-art posture gets old fast. Arm’s Way is full of charm and warmth, but also a slightly brooding darkness. The occasional comparison of Nick T. to Brian Wilson aren’t unfounded, as his music displayed the same darkness couched in warmth. Also like Wilson, T. is willing to use a wide range of melody, as demonstrated on tracks like “Abominable Snow” and “Kids Don’t Know Shit.”
Overall, much of the almost fetishized weirdness from Return to the Sea and the Unicorn’s Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone? has taken a backseat to more soaring vocals and instrumental interludes. There seems to have been a clear move in away from the racketish Unicorns into this most current release, from plain bizarre to sort of a odd pop sensibility. Even so, it’s hard to say that the Nick T. is moving towards a more “commercial” type of songwriting. It seems instead that his influences have become more broad and commercialized (as opposed to the largely interior Unicorns album, which seemed to pull its influences from fifth-grade recorder lessons and the kind of sounds you got playing with your parent’s tape decks and record players). While Arm’s Way doesn’t seem to quite fit all these elements together as successfully as past albums have managed with their respective influences, Nick T.’s originality and lyrical wit still come through in a clear and refreshing way.
Micah Towery is working on his master of fine arts degree at Hunter College in Manhattan. He is the founder and co-editor of The Cartographer Electric.
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