Review Summary: Nick Diamonds doesn't give a fuck what you think.
Nick Diamonds doesn’t give a *** what you think. From his short-lived stint as Nick Thorburn, frontman of critically acclaimed but combustible indie group the Unicorns, to forming half of AM-pop/folk duo Human Highway, Diamonds has never been one to sit long in any one place, stylistically or otherwise, and he certainly hasn’t been one to follow the waves of popular opinion. No more so is this apparent than with Islands, the experimental-pop collective Diamonds formed following the Unicorns’ self-destruction and whose debut, Return To The Sea, was an eclectic collection of indie odds and ends. Their sophomore effort, last year’s Arm’s Way, was an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink gumbo of genres and instruments, the production bombastic and reveling in its excess, the band and Diamonds going balls-out in terms of ridiculous arrangements and bizarre lyricism. Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that after the lavish results of Arm’s Way, Islands latest is almost like a comedown companion to that record, one that turns Islands’ sound in yet another new direction but retains the band’s strong pop foundations.
Maybe it was all the wild, physically taxing guitar solos. Maybe it was the prohibitive costs of hiring another full orchestra. Or maybe Diamonds and company just got sick of writing seven-minute-plus songs without sounding pompous. Whatever it is, Vapours is a concise twelve-song set with nary a one going over five minutes, highlighted by the kind of easygoing, electronica-based indie pop that opener “Switched On” typifies. A rollicking drum machine and bass rhythm propel a gently flowing melody and Diamonds’ bright vocals into the kind of effortless pop chorus that Islands have always been capable of before, but never with this kind of ease. It’s what makes unassuming tunes like the thudding, funky pulse of “Devout” or the hypnotic, dreamy soundscapes of “On Foreigner” such instant pleasures, the kind of songs that immediately call to mind the dog days of summer, with nothing to do but soak up the sun or cruise down a burning highway. None exemplify this feeling more than the title track, a piece that makes a push for most accessible song Islands have ever put to record. Guitars bounce in time to a simple floor-on-the-floor thump while the bass tickles below the surface, Diamonds’ explaining, “it’s the bassline in your mind! It’s a sexy way to cry!” before the chorus kicks into sugary overdrive. And that’s before the irrepressibly vibrant brass section comes in.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Islands without a bit of weirdness, and Vapours more than has its share of oddball moments. First single “No You Don’t” is a dud, a bare piece of electro-pop that sounds as if it was compiled from a bunch of Nintendo samples and flounders in its own bleeps and boops without achieving any sort of measurable liftoff. Islands even catches the Auto-Tune fever on “Heartbeat,” a tune that initially sounds like a Discovery outtake (read: a terrible, terrible idea), before the marching drums roll in and the guitars collide with one of the album’s catchiest choruses.
Perhaps the best part about Vapours, however, is its typically Islandsian layers; for all its immediate hooks and grabbing choruses Vapours is, like its predecessors, an album that keeps on revealing more on repeated listens. Diamonds proved long ago that he is one of the more subtly witty and relentlessly sharp lyricists in the indie realm, and his songwriting, from the hilarious storytelling of album highlight “Disarming The Car Bomb” to the sly drug metaphors on “No You Don’t,” takes more space to decipher and fully appreciate than I have here. Straightforward pop tunes like the spacey synth anthem “The Drums” or the feedback-soaked roar of “The Shining” sound merely adequate the first time through, until you hear the gradual deconstruction in the former or feel how perfectly Diamonds’ horror-movie tones fit in with the feedback-soaked roil of the latter.
But for all its little complexities, Vapours doesn’t get carried away like Arm’s Way and even Return To The Sea tended to do at times. At its root this is a record that is in love with the simple structure of a good pop/rock song, one that basks in the glow of summery feel-good tunes, no matter how many are actually fairly twisted thanks to Diamonds’ off-the-wall subject matter. It’s a distinctly different sound for Islands, their most electrified effort yet and one that will no doubt receive heaps of praise and criticism for its seemingly trendy bias towards electronica-based instrumentation. When all is said and done, however Vapours reveals what no amount of lyrical obfuscation or layers of production can obscure: Islands are exceptionally good at what they do, and what they do is write remarkably unconventional yet immediately endearing pop tunes.