Review ·

Screw Brad and Jen. Forget about Nick and Jessica. There was only one high-profile breakup that mattered last year: the decision of Alden "Ginger" Penner and Nick "Neil" Diamonds -- the creative force behind Montreal's experimental pop group the Unicorns -- to dissolve their musical partnership. Citing irreconcilable differences, the band decided to split at the end of 2004, at the height of their success after the acclaim of Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone? Fans of the quirky pop collective shouldn't fret, though; turns out the phoenix isn't the only mythological creature that can rise from the ashes. With Islands' debut, Return to the Sea, Diamonds and Unicorns drummer J'aime Tambeur are back -- and arguably better than ever.

 

Even though nobody would have really complained if Islands had taken the easy route and churned out Who Will Cut Our Hair v. 2.0, Diamonds and Tambeur, to their credit, opted for something a little more ambitious. Together with a host of contributors, including Jim Guthrie and the Arcade Fire's Richard Reed Parry and Sarah Neufeld, Return to the Sea is a huge step up from their previous work in both scope and maturity. The playfulness and sense of humor that won the Unicorns a boatload of fans is still there, but it's enveloped by a broader, more polished sound. Gone, for the most part, are the lo-fi production and the gimmicky keyboards. In their place, we get a cleaner, more organic sound, pulling from decidedly more extensive instrumentation, including strings and even a bass clarinet.

 

This change showcases the album's main revelation: With all the superfluous bells and whistles pushed aside, Diamonds is an extraordinary songwriter. Return to the Sea is filled with breezy, infectious melodies and quirky whip-smart lyrics; qualities that were sometimes lost underneath the Unicorns' shtick. The album is full of great little throwaway lines such as "You can scoop out my brain/ Shape it into an ear and then tell me your pain" from "Rough Gem." Diamonds's arrangements are much more cohesive than they were on previous efforts. If Who Will Cut Our Hair sometimes felt like a band throwing a bunch of ideas at a wall and seeing what stuck, Return to the Sea sounds much more deliberate, whether it's a quirky pop gem such as "Don't Call Me Whitney, Bobby" or a nine-plus-minute epic such as "Swans."

 

All that said, if accessibility is a bad word to you, then you might find yourself listening to "I Don't Want to Die" and lamenting the good old days. Otherwise, Return to the Sea should see heavy rotation amongst those who like their pop a little left of the dial.

 

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Islands Web site

Equator Records Web site

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