The Islands' "Arms Way," Islands' Kona Pie and The Pros of "Miscenegenation"
Last year when Sasha-Frere Jones wrote his now-infamous piece on the whiteness of indie rock, he repeatedly included the phrase "miscenegation" to describe the cross-pollination of sound between black and white music. The diction seemed deliberate, a molotov cocktail designed to rile up the chattering classes and leave them more discombobulated than someone with melanin at a Vampire Weekend concert. It was funny in a way. After all, few things are more comical than watching a bunch of white-guilt saddled liberals squirming with difficult topics like the intersection of race, class and music as though Al Sharpton had to vet every word beforehand.
Ultimately, it was a ballsy essay with some valid points and some not-so-valid ones. Despite their obvious talent, I've quite often found myself disinterested in the more vanilla "indie groups" like The Arcade Fire, Death Cab for Cutie* and Sufjan Stevens, who Frere-Jones rightfully declared lack, "swing, some empty space, and palpable bass frequencies-in other words, attributes of African-American popular music. "But as Carl Wilson's excellent Slate rebuttal, pointed out, "indie-rockers" like "Hot Chip, LCD Soundsystem and Spoon," fuse indie-slanted guitar rock with soul, funk and R&B, to produce music so danceable that it conned my reverse-racist sense of rhythm into getting down. Not bad.
But out of all of the groups listed above, the Islands, a six-piece, tri-racial outfit pull off "miscenegenation" as seamlessly as any. The group may share a hometown with Winn Butler and his backing crew of Six Feet Under cast members, but the similarities end there. Whereas The Arcade Fire started with that medieval, burn the heretics vibe of Funeral, the Islands, formed out of the ashes of The Unicorns, jumped off with the lead single "Where There's a Will, There's a Whalebone," perhaps the best fusion of rap and rock since Fred Durst blackmailed Premier and Method Man into collaborating with him on the only decent Limp Bizkit song, "All N2 Together Now." $ Enlisting oddball MC's Busdriver and Subtitle to lace tongue-twisting verses into the track's bridge, bracketing it with a stuttering, stoned dub, slow, tribal drums and weird, occult chanting, the result was brilliant, futuristic 21st century funk.
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The flirtation with hip-hop was neither ironic nor dilettantish dabbling, as Islands subsequently toured with rappers ranging from Busdriver & Subtitle, to Cadence Weapon and fellow genre shape-shifters Why? Plus, lead singer Nick Diamonds gushed effusively of his love for UGK and threw out a R.I.P Pimp C when he discovered that The Hood Internet had mashed-up Arm's Way's "Creeper" with verses from Bun B. Unfortunately, the album doesn't have anything as transparently "hip-hop" influenced as "Where There's a Will, There's a Whalebone," but it has swings in its own weird, baroque way, carving tension into wide, empty spaces and delivering basslines phone-book fat enough to fixate Fela fanatics.
Most impressive is their ability to absorb a tapestry of styles without ever approaching imitation. In the course of the album's hour-plus run time, they hit everything from concert hall symphony to stoner-prog, rum cocktail calypso to hair-cut indie to dizzy Sondheim-esque rambles. Hell, they even sample "A Quick One While He's Away," from original pranksters of genre-swiping, The Who. Lyrically, Nick Diamonds' songs continue a morbid fascination with death, violent ocean metaphors and considerations of evil. Songs include "Creeper," "We Swim" "I Feel Evil Creeping In," and "Vertigo (If It's a Crime)." To his credit, they retain a sort of sonic levity that never feels tacky and a sly playfulness that would ostensibly leaden songs with a similarly grim subject matter.
The cumulative effect makes for one of my favorite albums of 2008, one with an impressive re-play value, as repeated listening rewards the band's deft deconstructionism. Moreover, the record captures a sense of exoticism, adventure and whimsy without coming off corny or simplistic. Vampire Weekend's passport afro-pop topped off with ska-flavoring (tastes vaguely like cherry) will inevitably elicit the lion's share of media attention come year-end time, but for my money, the Islands have inculcated a far more mature, unique sound. And hey, at the rate Islands' are evolving, maybe next time they'll discover the magical elixir to critical success: aping the Mighty Mighty Bosstones.
* Though when asked, Death Cab for Cutie lead singer Ben Gibbard will defend his band's coalition as being composed of a vital constituency of "working, white hard-working, white upper-middle class people."
^ It continues to remain unknown whether or not, Islands took their name from lead singer, Nick Diamonds' love of Islands' restaurants delectable Kona Pies.
$ Blackmail is the only logical explanation for Meth and Premo blessing Durst with a classic song. That or vast quantities of Jimmy Iovine Interscope scrilla. ()