"Hang on this track Swans sounds like Arcade Fire, albeit low-fi. I can assure you that I'm not that pissed."
Islands – Return to the Sea (Rough Trade/Konkurrent)
Hang on this track Swans sounds like Arcade Fire, albeit low-fi. I can assure you that I'm not that pissed. But it's the same piano-led chord progression surely, albeit more ramshackle. Still it's a very enjoyable track once you get over the initial shock; the mumbled vocals bring to mind early Mercury Rev at times and I do like the fact that they keep repeating the word "swans" over and over again. And it does break down into a delirious mess seven minutes in. The follow up, Humans is a military band stomp with a set of very claustrophobic lyrics that are at odds with the rather jolly music that encases them. There's even whistling at one point, (though I'm sure it's supposed to be ironic) Things get bleaker by the end of the track I promise.
Don't Call Me Whitney, Bobby is a very enjoyable shuffle that somehow reminds me of early Paul Simon. Death is obviously never far away from the collective mindset of Islands, despite the upbeat tunes, sleek skeletons brittle little bones and sick body parts are oft mentioned
Rough Gem is another upbeat number which is about diamonds apparently. Well, there's a rather predictable play on the meaning of rough gem... Still the music skips along in a jolly way; the restless interchange of sounds and tempo prevent the sentiments on display becoming to mawkish. And there's a great, wailing ending thrown in. The following track, Tsuxiit is brings to mind the instrumentals off Pet Sounds, in that the arrangement is very restless, always hinting that it might break out in order to do something different; (and they employ that Beach Boy's cymbal sound too).
I'm beginning to regret my flippancy at the beginning of this review, as this LP is really beginning to grow on me. What makes my mind up is the magnificent Where There's a Will There's a Whalebone; a magnificent crashing sermon complete with a nutty rap a-mid-ships. When the song resumes its epic; a Will Sergeant-style guitar run only adds to its potency. Brilliant. Jogging Gorgeous Summer is, as the title suggests, a flowery jog along a Caribbean dirt track. The steel drums sound particularly fabulous. For some reason I'm reminded of early Mercury Rev again... (Maybe because it's so gloriously sloppy). It's over very quickly, leading into a very spooky ghost voice that introduces Volcanoes; a song which - considering we've been listening to the voices of the dead - is very winsome and soft... It also has the brilliant couple'; "A hard rain falls made of magma, melts Alaska/And in Icy Argentine they say, now I've seen it all". The song suddenly kicks off, sounding like Akron/Family (no bad thing in my books).
Following that is If; which is a soft-shoe shuffle par excellence. I have to disagree with the line; "so if early man really did mate with Neanderthal man then modern man really is a mix of bestial sex"... maybe it was love at first sight. Anyway; If is a very relaxed and enjoyable breather in this hectic set. According to the CD notes, we've now reached the last number, Ones. This track starts as if it's Guru Guru or Kraftwerk 1, such is the array of dissonance on show; still it won't stay that way long I bet. Nope, it doesn't, preferring to build up a reflective ambience, replete with a stalking guitar and crashing cymbals. Four minutes in things go very silent only for the music to build slowly up again. What is impressive is the way that things are kept sotto at the end; to "go overboard" at this point would have crushed the track's beauty.
You know what? I can also reveal that there's an extra track called Renaud, which is an affecting ditty about the nature friendship. It starts with a rain shower (for nigh on five minutes) and then becomes a jolly piano-based sing along, if one tinged with regret.
Well, what can I say? Enjoyably surprised, no doubt about that. Check it out.
Words: Richard Foster.