ISLANDS with the DUKE SPIRIT , ELBOW and more, as part of the Ukula Bright Lights Festival at the Stone Distillery Fermenting Cellar, November 5. Tickets: $25. Attendance: 650. Rating: NNN
In a sea of Elbow fans (and people who love people who love Elbow), Nick Diamonds and his valiant comrades in the Islands conglomerate stuck out like a handful of sore thumbs at Saturday's Ukula Bright Lights Fest . Outfitted in variations on Ladies & Gentlemen-style dazzling white uniforms, the Islands gents cut a striking Gatsbyan contrast to the lank dark moptops and black leather jackets that, judging from the modest crowd in the Distillery District , are the de facto uniform of those who like their rock British and brooding.
It wasn't just the clothes that stood out, though. After nondescript sets of ringing, plaintive doom-and-gloomy guitar tunes from post-Interpol outfits the Call-Up and Stirling , and a haphazard (but highly energetic) round of jerky rock from V2-signed locals the Meligrove Band , Islands' eccentric and unexpectedly delicate orchestral pop was a delightful shift.
Like the Unicorns (the previous outlet for Diamonds and Islands drummer Jaime "J'aime Tambeur" Thompson ), Islands incorporate a genuine, unabashed love for purely pretty pop in their songwriting. But with this project, they seem to have stripped away the self-congratulatory irony at least partly.
While Diamonds's dig about the "anti-magazine" fest seemed to be a subtle jab at sponsoring mag Ukula, he had no qualms about whispering sweet nothings about swans over ecstatic bursts of cheery major-key keyboard plunks and swooning violins. The latter came courtesy of unbelievably cute bandmates Alex and Sebastian , two gangly kids who look like they escaped from Suzuki string classes but apparently were "stolen" from the McGill music faculty.
Another song, based around a swaying calypso-tinged riff, sounded like a outtake from Paul Simon's Graceland sessions (minus Ladysmith Black Mambazo), and would've been even better if we could actually have made out Diamonds's vocals and Jim Guthrie 's intricate guitar parts and harmonies. Sadly, though the exposed rafters and brickwork of the Fermenting Cellar made for a nice-looking venue, the acoustics were downright crappy, verging on the tinny echo-chamber vibe of a warehouse rave.
Even with the awful mix, Islands were about 500 per cent better than the best time I saw the Unicorns live, which bodes well for their upcoming December 1 gig at the Drake. I heard whispers that the sound guy refused to let anyone adjust the vocal levels he'd set up for the headliners, and the rumour seemed plausible when Elbow finally came onstage . With their heavily reverbed guitars and crutch-toting frontman Guy Garvey 's stadium-sized singing voice, they sounded great.
Too bad the other bands didn't get to perform on even ground.