On their debut record, Return to the Sea, Montreal's Islands have crafted a rich, exciting, and emotionally deep sounding album that carries on the freewheeling spirit and sound of the Unicorns as well as that of the Elephant 6 bands of the late '90s. You see, Islands singer/guitarist/songwriter/producer Nick Diamonds and drummer Jaime were members of the Unicorns and they have taken the strengths of that band, amplified and adjusted them, added a few more vital ingredients, and come up with a disc that satisfies on a variety of levels and rates among the best indie rock around. The Unicorns were a lo-fi, experimental car crash of a band, equal parts whimsy and exuberance; Islands are a much more adult and measured experience with a much cleaner sound and more classic arrangements (lots of strings, accordions, standup bass, and pianos to go with the cheap synthesizers). Diamonds' voice is much less whimsical; he has scaled back on the Coyne meter from nine to around five and now conveys his slightly off-kilter lyrics with more emotion and honesty. Despite the changes, the group hasn't lost any of the sunshine-addled spark that the Unicorns had, as songs like the whirling "Don't Call Me Whitney, Bobby" or "Jogging Gorgeous Summer" (which comes kitted out with steel drums and recorder!) clearly demonstrate. The trippy "Volcanoes" (nice rock snob reference to the Troggs tapes in the lyrics), the indie psych/hip-hop mash-up featuring the rhyme skills of Subtitle and Busdriver, or the epic-length psychedelic singalong that opens the record so nicely ("Swans [Life After Death]") show that the band hasn't lost their ambition, either. "Ones" itself has more big-hearted ambition and dramatic power than most bands could dream of unleashing. The lovely instrumental "Tsuxiit" or the sweetly pop-rocking "Rough Gem" sound like the work of another band entirely, and indeed all of these comparisons to the Unicorns are ultimately irrelevant. It's not like you have to be a fan of that band to fall in love with this one. All you need is a love of melodies and innocent indie pop weirdness, two things this album has plenty of.
“Who knew how warm the islands would be...” Ten years on, Islands is celebrating the release of their seminal debut album Return to the Sea with a classy anniversary reissue. Remastered for vinyl and pressed to 2x 180 gram vinyl at 45rpm, it has never sounded better. The artwork has received a tasteful touch-up, with gatefold, inserts with archival photos never before released, and an in-depth essay about the album’s creation by Mr. Diamonds himself. The following excerpts are the first and last paragraphs from that essay:
“On December 31st, 2004, I flew down to Los Angeles from Campbell River, B.C. I was at a puzzling intersection: A few days earlier, my band, the Unicorns, had finally combusted onstage in Houston, Texas. I'd just turned twenty-three. I had thrown all of my possessions on the sidewalk a year prior and now had nowhere to live. I was adrift. My friend Adam Gollner convinced me to come down to LA, where he was writing and researching his first book. The idea was to clear my head and get some sun for two weeks. It ended up raining torrentially every day. After the rain cleared, I invited my former bandmate Jamie Thompson to join me. We spent the next three months in LA plotting our next move, knowing we wanted to continue playing music together after the dissolution of the Unicorns....
...For years, I maintained a distance to this record, and considered overhauling it entirely. After Jamie and I had assembled the band to perform the songs live in the fall of 2005, I wanted to re-record everything with them. When the 10th anniversary of the record’s release started rolling around in the spring of 2016, I strongly considered doing a reimagined remix, losing excess instrumentation and caking my vocals in a more professional gloss. For ages I bristled at the record’s flaws; my squeaky, earnest vocals, drums and guitars that sounded meek when I wanted them to sound heavy, precious lyrics, naive melodies. No, this record isn’t anywhere near perfect, and nor should anything earthly be. I’ve only started to realize that this record’s imperfections are exactly what cradles its meaning and curiosities, its heart and spirit. Here it is again. Back in my arms or under my wings, the waves licking our ankles, ready to head back out again. Don’t forget to lift the locked groove.”