On its second album, “Arm's Way,” indie-rock sextet Islands splatters its beautifully bombastic, orchestral arrangements with vivid, sometimes gory and gruesome images – not to mention the CD cover, which features a fantasy scene inside an exploding rib cage.
Yet all those elements tie together for a unique disc, where a sinister traveling carnival meets arena rock.
“I feel an album is really a record of a time,” says frontman and songwriter Nick Thorburn. “It is a dying art form. If you're going to make an album, there should be some sort of thread woven through that makes it more than a random collection of songs.”
Islands, which plays Neighborhood Theatre Saturday, should appeal to fans of fellow Montreal group the Arcade Fire.
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The stories Thorburn weaves through his colorfully detailed lyrics aren't always on the surface. The title track, for instance, “is supposed to be an ambiguous sort of analysis of an arm – whether it's a benevolent or malevolent arm is unclear,” he explains. “(It's about) the sense of confusion over the intentions of a person towards another.
“I guess that's how I was feeling – wanting to help someone, but not necessarily knowing how.”
Other songs have more concrete backstories, like the bloody-yet-lovely “Pieces of You,” which was inspired by a small-town murder.
“Some kids I knew, but not terribly well – I was becoming sort of close with one of them until he stole a watch from me in gym class and things got tense,” Thorburn recalls. “A couple of weeks later, they robbed this fisherman and beat him to death and got like $4 out of his wallet. There didn't seem like there was a lot of remorse.
“I was thinking about it when I was moving out of that town – a troubled town with a lot of wasted youth and, I guess, idle hands.”
It was then, at age 16, that he discovered music.
“I had a rough couple of years adjusting to the new town and not getting along with anyone. Then I met a couple people playing music,” recalls Thorburn, now 26. “It was totally foreign to me. I didn't know how to hold a guitar properly.”
He observed and learned, combining his new musical skill with an interest in prose and poetry. He founded the critically acclaimed indie-pop band the Unicorns, whose legacy has been difficult for Islands to outshine. Fans still cling to that band's adolescent pop.
“It's lingered longer than I ever thought it would,” he says. “I respect and honor that time in my life. I don't relate to it anymore. I don't write songs the same way. I feel like a completely different person, but I'm not trying to distance myself from it.”