Islands, Damn Shames

Tom Blackburn 26/02/2008

A trip to Hoxton is never terribly welcome, but the prospect of seeing Islands was too tempting to turn down. Touring in the run-up to the release of their sophomore record, the horrendously-titled "Arm's Way," the Canadians used their latest sojourn across the pond to give their new material a live airing.

But before all that, I grabbed my overpriced lager and took my place amongst the fashionable haircuts to watch the support band, Edinburgh trio Damn Shames. For comedy purposes I'd like to be able to tell you they were Damn Shite but, inconveniently for me, that would be overstating things somewhat.

The band knocked out a just-about-passable brand of the usual jerky, slightly mathy post-punk beloved of far too many British bands, but there was really nothing remarkable about their songs or their performance. In fact, just about the only thing separating them from the legions of mediocre Foals copyists was their lack of live drums. Well, that and the fact they can't play their instruments quite as well.

But to be fair, they weren't really helped by the venue's ropey sound - bass and vocals were barely audible throughout most of their set - but with the best will in the world, even if the sound was crystal clear they would surely be nothing other than decidedly average. Their set did at least finish at a civilised 9:15, but a difficult soundcheck delayed proceedings soon afterwards.

Looking slightly like Patrick Wolf, frontman Nick Diamonds introduced himself with a terse “Well, that was excruciating,” without really specifying what 'that' was. The beer? A particularly offensive haircut? He almost certainly meant the soundcheck, of course, but he could have been referring to one of a number of things. This is Hoxton after all, and there's no shortage of things to find excruciating.

Islands have proudly declared Paul Simon's AOR-favourite Graceland as a major influence, and it's writ especially large over their live performance. Not only was that album's title track a staple of early Islands gigs, but the band's mission is, seemingly to replicate its blend of slick, radio-friendly pop melodies and jazz and African influences.

Where Diamonds' previous band, The Unicorns, played like they were throwing every single idea into the mix and falling apart at the seams in the process, Islands are slick and professional. Their rhythm section, consisting of drummer Aaron Harris and bassist Patrice Agbokou (who is cool personified beneath his excellent hat), is supple but disciplined, giving the rest of the band ample room to breathe.

Unsurprisingly, their set is dominated by new material, but this can often prove a barrier. In a live setting, it can be hard to get into proceedings when you're being bombarded with new material when it's not broken up by older songs. As good as Islands' new songs sound, and as consummately as they were performed, this was the problem tonight.

There was some room for old favourites, however. 'Where There's A Will, There's A Whalebone' made a welcome appearance, though shorn of the rap verses present on the album version, themselves a hangover from Diamonds' other post-Unicorns project, Th'Corn Gangg. The jokey skiffle-pop of 'Don't Call Me Whitney, Bobby' is also rapturously received by the crowd.

There's also the occasional hint of the Arcade Fire about Islands, as evidenced by a sweeping cover of Sinead O'Connor's 'Red Football' for the encore, Diamonds' impassioned vocal turn backed by muscular drumming and stomping guitars, but Return to the Sea's epic opener 'Swans (Life After Death)' falls slightly flat in the live environment and feels almost anti-climactic.

Tonight's gig was a good one that never quite ignited. The new songs fit in well with the older material, but there just wasn't quite enough of that. The absence of 'Rough Gem', easily the band's finest pop moment, was also disappointing, though having not stayed to the very end I may have missed it. An entertaining evening, then, but they'll almost certainly be better on their next tour.

Damn Shames: 2/5
Islands: 3/5