Review: Islands ‘Ski Mask’

Jason Walsh, Staff Reporter

Artist: Islands
Album: Ski Mask
Rating: 3 / 5

Islands is a Canadian band fronted by Nicholas Thorburn, formerly of indie-rock touchstones The Unicorns and more recently bands like Islands and Mister Heavenly.

The last few years have seen so-called ‘indie’ artists becoming more and more comfortable with making flat out pop music. Bands like Tanlines, Chvrches and Purity Ring all make fairly straightforward pop and have all found at least a little bit of mainstream success.

Given that situation, in some ways Islands sound like they are stuck in the past. For the first half of “Ski Mask,” Islands sound like an approximation of the pastiche, art and experimental pop that Thorburn did with The Unicorns a decade ago.

Second track “Death Drive” opens with dissonant piano chords, shifts tempo and melody halfway through, then slows back down for an outro all in less than three minutes.

Fourth track “Nil” sounds like a decent Man Man song (who Thorburn works with in Mister Heavenly). It’s full of close vocal harmonies and syncopated guitars and pianos, with Thorburn lilting “Are you impressed with how depressed I’ve become?”

Things change fairly dramatically with the centerpiece “Hushed Tones.” The middle and longest song of the album, “Hushed Tones” is a slower tempo song that has a lot in common with Tanlines’ great song from last year, “Not The Same.”

“Hushed Tones” sets the (no pun intended) tone for the second half of the album. The second half puts away the restless experimentation of the first half and slows down, stretches out, and simplifies the songs. All but one of the last six songs are longer than every one of the first five.

“Here Here” is a soft ballad that invites us to “warm your weary heart / rest your troubled mind / the world is unkind.”

“Of Corpse” is a standout track. This simple, quiet track features some of Thorburn’s best singing on the album and just a little bit of guitar.

“Ski Mask” shines when Islands try to do less. There is nothing necessarily wrong with experimentation, shifting tempos and changing song structures, but it needs to be compelling, something the first half of the album unfortunately fails at too much.

“Becoming the Gunship,” one of the best songs on the album, is certainly the best song on the first half and also the simplest. It starts with drum roll beat, adds a simple guitar line on top and has a catchy chorus reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m Goin’ Down.”

“Ski Mask” is the rare album with a stronger B side than its A side. For long-time Unicorns fans or people into Thorburn’s other projects, “Ski Mask” is definitely worth a listen. And there is certainly nothing wrong with “Ski Mask.” There are no truly bad songs, and there are some quite good ones. But there are plenty of artists making more interesting, and more fun, pop music in 2013.