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Pop-Up! : Islands @ Le National, May 20/06

Posted by Trixie / May 22, 2006

So, the Islands, all of the band members, wear cute variations of all-white outfits. The white shirts sport a geometric patch of colour, a different colour on each lad, bringing to mind some harried mom behind the scenes sewing the patches on, as if for her kids’ grade-school talent show. The band gives a fun, focused show. The guys spend a lot of time switching up instruments and frolicking restlessly. Several band members hang out in the middle ground, chatting across the stage and giggling at each other in mid-play. Frontman Nick Diamonds jumps around, awkwardly twining his microphone cord about him; his grown-out bowl-cut hair, shiny as a Prell Girl’s, flops about insouciantly.

Nevertheless, the vibe is not exactly one of good cheer—it’s more like a nervous high-energy, which is ultimately much more interesting than happy-happy or uncomplicated fun, certainly more compelling than full-on irony, but somehow not as arresting or steadfast as it might be. No matter—The music is full of eclectic energy and expansive imagination, with catchy but not-quite-obvious hooks, and often kicky little momentary thrills. The band is ultimately pure pop, but not really cutesy or twee: it’s more oddball and spacey in it’s musical sensibility, glam-rock with a tropical flavour, eclectic and rich—if also sometimes a bit brittle. The show and the music it’s built on are highly enjoyable, even at times moving, but it burns away quickly. Or maybe soars away—insubstantial as a balloon, and equally fanciful.

My friend commented—not displeased, mind you—that she felt like she was watching a Benetton ad in motion. And the comparison is apt in that you are witnessing something that takes elements that are not all white—in this case, individual band members, musical influences—but which comes together as something that, on the whole, is pretty darn white. Which I don’t think is exactly what Islands is going for with their signature sartorial colour choice, but it’s an interesting parallel.

My observation is an aesthetic rather than a political one. (And it must be noted that the moody “Where There's a Will, There's a Whalebone” breaks out into some rousing, nicely-integrated hip hop. Opening acts Cadence Weapon and Busdriver burst onto the stage and manic fun ensued; they departed amongst much affectionate on-stage hugging, and wild fanfare.) It’s just that the guys—collectively and in stage-mode, anyway—seem so gosh darned squeaky-clean and upbeat. Upbeat in that way that geeky boys in junior high are upbeat without being happy per se—just going about doing their own thing, content and clueless in their absorption in a task. I saw Islands last fall at Zoo Bizarre, and something about all those band members crammed into that little bunker with no head space made them seem, now in retrospect, more ironic and more adult; the show was very tight; the band concept seemed more like a shtick, but a very workable, fully-realized one: like a lounge-act taken to a new, ultra-hip level. Saturday night’s show exceeded these bounds, becoming an altogether different, sprawling experience. Watching Islands perform so gamely within the gilded, worn-out majesty of Le National created, weirdly, the impression of watching really committed junior-high boys demonstrate their kick-ass project at the science fair. And if this doesn’t sound cool, well, it is meant to.

Anyway, the encore really brought the whole thing together: “Rough Gem” made me grin idiotically to its feverishly pop-y motif (and I finally figured out the kinship of that motif, which has been tormenting me: Cyndi Lauper’s version of Prince’s “When You were Mine”). And, live, “Swans (Life After Death)” has a real grandiosity: it’s one of those songs that makes me remember dreams I’ve had that had heretofore been lost to me.

And finally, I have to return to Nick Diamonds. He’s like a best friend’s cute little brother, who you could imagine being kinda sexy except you can’t quite think about him that way, since he seems such a fey, lanky oddball—albeit, a charismatic one. His rock-boy sexiness came through with opening and closing gestures: The show began moodily, enigmatically, with Diamonds astride a chair, his back to the audience, cooing a few lines, unaccompanied, of Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer”. And it neared its end with Diamonds telling his adoring audience (female members of which had been periodically screaming “Nick! You are SOOOO sexEEE!!!”):

“Thanks. You’ve been great. I can’t wait to make out with you later.”
Pause. Pause. Wait for it.
“You are VERY attractive.”

I’m sure many a girl—and boy—floated home a-swooning.

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