Considering the cemetery setting, there was a quite a bit of festivity in the air Friday night at Hollywood Forever’s Masonic Lodge where Islands appeared to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the release of their first album, Return to the Sea. Given Islands’ birth in LA, many friendly characters in the crowd, and a “remember when?” themed slide show, there was a high school reunion feeling to the proceedings.
Daddy Kev, a collaborator with Islands’ front man Nick Diamonds in Reefer (an “alternative hip-hop group based in Maui County, Hawaii”), spun a lively opening set. Dwarfing Kev was an enormous screen (wall) of digital projections that were manipulated in real time by visual artist Elan. The images were so futuristic and sharp in resolution that they would have been unimaginable in 2006 at the time of the release of Return to the Sea. Let us not forget, we live in the future.
Prior to Islands descending from the balcony area for their jaunt down memory lane, a slideshow on the same wall reminded us of some of the other prize winners from 2006: Basic Instinct 2, Now That’s What I Call Music! 64, for example.
There were also block-lettered messages of WELCOME BACK and ISLANDS ARE FOREVER mixed in that were more heartfelt, while video clip testimonials read by relative strangers felt a bit more in jest. This casual slaloming between sincerity and wiseass-ness is at the heart of Islands’ ethos, one that is cut from the same cloth that also blessed us with someone like Beck. Keep in mind that the Caribbean-sounding third track of Return to the Sea is titled, “Don’t Call Me Whitney, Bobby.”
Islands played the LP from front-to-back to start the show, beginning with the circular guitar lines from “Swans (Life After Death).” Toward the tune’s end, old friend Richard Reed Parry (Arcade Fire) and Diamonds (aka Nick Thorburn) were back-to-back, each eviscerating their guitars. By the culmination of the 10+ minute song’s final section, Diamonds had dropped to his knees and was playing — in his white jumpsuit.
Between tracks, Diamonds gestured to the soundboard and asked that a modification be made to the mix. He then let us know that this request “wasn’t on the record.” It was this type of playful informality that kept things light as Islands had to dive deep to recreate a 55-minute, intricately produced album in a live setting.
There are so many disparate sounds on Return to the Sea that any hint of a single genre is quickly defied by the sonic whiplash of moving from one track to the next, or at times, moving from verse to chorus within the same song.
The disconcerting sound of fun house weirdness in “Humans” was eventually offset by the distinguished, buttoned-up tone of a French horn from — wait for it — Chris French. There were fuzzed-out drums on the instrumental “Tsuxiit,” after which Diamonds theorized with faux self-deprecation, “Half way through the record…you’re fatigued. You may put on something else.” Thankfully, Islands did not.
Instead, they shape shifted into the creepin’ and crawlin’ attitude of the indie space funk jam “Where There’s a Will, There’s a Whalebone,” Diamonds’ exaggerated dance moves, and his lazily conveyed threat, “If anyone finds out, I’ll turn their lights out.” Mid-song, Giovanni Marks, aka Subtitle, emerged from the wings to rhyme lyrically macabre verses that accelerated the song into a furious overdrive.
“Jogging Gorgeous Summer” returned to the mellower island vibe of “Don’t Call Me Whitney, Bobby,” each veritable Graceland B-sides. With 10 people now on stage, quivering strings from Allie Lawn and and Nancy Kuo complemented the twisted bluegrass verse of “Volcanoes.”
Before taking a leap of faith, Diamonds confessed that Islands hadn’t played “If” in ten years and that he was “scared of it.” It’s an offbeat number that could be found on a Ween record. As such, it is laced with clever, play-on-word lyrics that are a microcosm of Islands’ best dichotomy where the gentle and soft meets the violent and grotesque. In sum, it’s a circus-sounding shot across the bow warning to a lover:
If you ain’t sweet to me
I’ll dessert you in a heartbeat
If you don’t savor me
I’ll salt you make you savory
Ryan Kattner (aka Honus Honus of Man Man) joined on stage with a rain stick to replicate the atmospheric sounds in the first 4+ minutes of “Bucky Little Wing” on Return to the Sea. “Can I get more rain stick in my monitor?” he asked.
By the conclusion of the performance of the album, there was earnest joy on Nick Thorburn’s face, as he proudly introduced the 15 or so contributors to the set. Before a set break, though, he did quip, “Thank you, we are Islands. Islands is up next.”
After a comedy je ne se quoi interlude from Max Silvestri, Allan McLeod, and Jon Daly (as “Papa Johns Misty”) that touched on such topics as pizza and Jon Benet Ramsey, Islands returned to play a retrospective set of material culled from the rest of their catalogue. They chose six songs, one from each of their other six albums, and played them in chronological order by when they were released.
For this truncated set, the band on stage was kept to the core of Islands: Diamonds, Evan Gordon, Geordie Gordon, Steve McDonald, and Adam Halferty. The opening “Creeper” picked up lyrically where previous songs left off: “Right from the start, I was stabbed in the heart.”
After “Wave Forms,” Nick Diamonds became more Nick Thorburn, as he solemnly observed, “America is in rough shape. My response is to not look away and to forgive people who don’t have that luxury.”
The last two songs came from the pair of albums Islands released this year, Taste and the aptly titled Should I Remain Here At Sea?
Diamonds strapped on a bass for the excellent, moody “Pumpkin,” and then for “Fear,” he memorialized his previous observations on our country with the lyrics, “America, you’re so unkind, you break the body, chain the mind. You’d fix it but you haven’t got the time.”
In all, the show was a special experience and perhaps the kind that we won’t see too much of from Islands down the road.
Similar efforts in the name of nostalgia get knocked hard and sometimes deservedly so. But when presented with precision, joy, and just the right amount of biting wit, maybe it ain’t all that bad, you guys. Sometimes, don’t you wish you could go back 10 years? Or maybe eight.
Islands at Hollywood Forever Cemetery Masonic Lodge Setlist:
Return to the Sea
Swans (Life After Death)
Don’t Call Me Whitney, Bobby
Where There’s a Will, There’s a Whalebone
Jogging Gorgeous Summer
Bucky Little Wing
Creeper (off Arm’s Way 2008)
Heartbeat (off Vapours 2009)
Hallways (off A Sleep & A Forgetting 2012)
Wave Forms (off Ski Mask 2013)
Pumpkin (off Taste 2016)
Fear (off Should I Remain Here At Sea? 2016)
For more information: Islands