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Islands - Vapours

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Artist: Islands

Album: Vapours

Label: Anti-

Review date: Sep. 23, 2009

Islands’ new album Vapours is a good example of what it means to incorporate as opposed to what we can call appropriate. At this point in the narrative, it seems useless to keep criticizing Western indie artists who borrow other cultures’ ideas from their elite perch. Cultural gentrification is no longer an outlier strategy, but rather is being employed by band after band and label after label. As an idea, it’s begun to achieve critical mass, and the flow of ideas from privileged to less-privileged and vice versa is starting to be reciprocal enough that maybe, in the end, it’s justified. Maybe U.S. exceptionalism in the political realm won’t weigh too heavily on the aesthetic realm. I suppose what’s left to sort out then is how creatively one ganks from someone else and how the power dynamic shakes out. If one just grabs a melody or drumbeat from some traditional Tanzanian music and overlays some lyrics about their parents’ ranchhouse, we can call that theft out for what it really is.

There are, of course, more imaginative ways to incorporate. Islands are not thieves, which is what distinguishes them in large part from the mass of indie bands that gained their pedigree in the last decade. One can pick out the moments when they most sound like the Pixies, or like prog, or like ’60s pop, or like calypso, but in every case, those moments sink back into the whole. This seems to say that Jaime Thompson and Nick Thorburn aren’t stealing in any way, but are merely influenced, which is a specific distinction. When a musical idea is forced because the artist thinks something or someone is cool and wants to sound like them, that’s the clunky touch of an inexperienced burglar, leaving fingerprints and telltale signs everywhere. On the other hand, there are those that are genuinely touched by something, and rather than set out to sound a certain way naturally and organically become that way. Islands genuinely feels like the latter, because no moment on Vapours ever feels forced or incongruous.

Unicorns, the band Islands formed out of, gained renown largely due to an artificial push from the internet tastemakers. Nonetheless, what made them appealing is the slap-dash, scattered feel of their work. Instead of being all over the place, Vapours is held together by the dynamic between Thorburn and Thompson. That Thompson was missing on Islands’ colorless second album, Arm’s Way, is largely illustrative of this. Whatever it is about the two of them making music together, they are able to contain the jumble of moments that make up their songs, and subsequently the album. Where Arm’s Way was mostly excess without limit, Vapours is tightly-controlled, yet still roiling beneath the surface.

By Andrew Beckerman

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