MP3: Islands – Rough Gem
The term ‘swan song’ refers to the belief that the Mute Swan is completely silent through its entire life, but sings one song of unfathomable beauty right before its death. While this particular myth is unfortunately untrue, it does give us a good insight into the beginnings of Islands and the death of Nicholas Diamonds and Jaime Tambour’s first band, The Unicorns.
The opening track of Island’s debut album, Return to the Sea, is the appropriately named “Swans (Life After Death).” The title seems to refer to not only it being a swan song for their former band, but also the theme of death which runs through the Unicorn’s last album Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone? In addition to numerous references to older Unicorns material, the song also contains pieces of the group’s early work, “Thunder and Lightning.” But as mournful as “Swans” may be, so too is it comforting. It serves as both a memorial for The Unicorns, and as a birth for Islands.
And what a difference between the two.
In December, 2004 The Unicorns posted a message on their website, saying simply: “THE UNICORNS ARE DEAD (R.I.P.)” While members Nicholas Diamonds and Jaime Tambour had been involved with their side-project, a hip-hop group called Th’Corn Gangg, they later announced their intention to form another pop group.
From its conception, Islands was intended to be a group that drew heavily upon the duo’s network of fellow musicians from the Montreal area–a group that ranged from members of the Arcade Fire, to popsmith Jim Guthrie.
“[We] experimented a lot when we had guests in the studio,” said Tambour. “The guests on the record had quite a bit of input into what they played. We only brought in really talented people so that we could trust them to do great things.”
And for Islands, it seems that this strategy paid off in full. Return to the Sea runs the gamut from tropical pop (“Jogging Gorgeous Summer”) to marching pseudo-anthems (“Humans”), all without suffering from a lack of direction. In fact, perhaps the biggest musical gamble taken by Islands, the shify hip-hop song “Where There’s a Will There’s a Whalebone,” turned out to be one of the band’s biggest hits. The song thunders along like a slow moving storm and makes full use of the contributions from rappers Subtitle and Busdriver.
“When Nick and I lived in LA, we hung out with both of those guys all the time,” said Jaime. “Those guys are family, there was no question that it was going to work out well. We’ve been lucky enough to do ‘Whalebone…’ live with both of them a couple times and it always absolutely kills.”
But just as their successes seem to be piling up, so too are the doubts. The internet has been aflame with Unicorns comparisions ever since Return to the Sea started to leak earlier this year. And while it might have bothered them initially, Islands don’t seem to be too concerned with being measured against their former works.
“I think there will be some people who are sad that we aren’t doing the Unicorns again, and I’m sure they will post messages all over the internet about it,” Jaime said. “But I hope that most people will be open minded enough to approach this band on its own merits.”
When asked if the band had any unofficial motto during its early stages, Jaime’s answer was quick and simple: DIY. “We have been doing this with as little help as possible,” he explained. “We wrote and co-directed our video, we manage ourselves, we’re going to try to succeed through hard work, and touring and the strength of our music….I think you can make it big without selling your soul.”