The Declaration – scene – October 18, 2006
By John Ruscher
In the midst of Islands’ set at the Satellite Ballroom on Saturday night, a few boisterous audience members somewhere in the back shouted “Play ‘I Was Born A Unicorn’!” and were immediately met with boos from the rest of the crowd. This scene demonstrated a struggle that Islands have faced since they emerged from the ashes of The Unicorns, who released the quirky and critically acclaimed Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone? in 2003, before splitting up the following year.
Though frontman Nick Diamonds is the only former-Unicorn left in Islands (drummer Jamie Thompson, the other ex-’corn, left earlier this year), the connection still remains strong in people’s minds. The flyers put up around town branded Islands as “ex-Unicorns” and people before the show (some of my friends included) expressed the hope that a few Unicorns songs might make it into the set. But Islands took the Ballroom stage and proved that they are not riding on the coattails of their mythical predecessors. And they don’t need to.
Diamonds’ stage banter was not very witty or eloquent, but his engagement with the audience was nonetheless endearing. His most common question was “So, are you guys having fun?” and he falsely claimed that he had never been to Charlottesville before, when in fact he played UPC’s Fest Full of Rock with The Unicorns back in 2004. But what Diamonds lacked in wit and memory the band made up for in energy and fantastic execution. Alex and Sebastian Chow were particularly impressive. The siblings both rocked out on violins and also took turns manning the synths. Patrick Gregoire performed double duty with guitar and bass clarinet, which surprisingly fit perfectly into the mix, and Patrice Agbokou and Aaron Harris rounded things out with their tight, bouncing rhythms.
Despite having released only one album, Islands did a splendid job of filling out their set. They balanced between cuts from Return to the Sea, new songs, and a rendition of The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset.” The cover was well done and meshed nicely with the Islands sound, but the charm of the song seemed lost on the large high-school-age contingency of the crowd. Everybody, however, seemed to enjoy the new songs, which are a promising sign that Islands aren’t going to combust as quickly as the Unicorns. After all, the band’s slogan is “Islands are forever.” The Return to the Sea songs were spread out strategically, with things starting off with the album-opener, “Swans (Life after Death”, and finishing up with the infectious crowd-favorites “Rough Gem” and “Don’t Call Me Whitney, Bobby”).
I have to admit that when I first heard Return to the Sea I wasn’t very impressed. I had heard and loved the single “Rough Gem”, but the rest of the album didn’t deliver the same degree of sugary, synthy pop. But I think that I, like many others, was craving more Unicorns songs. And this is no fault of my own. The Unicorns forged such a poignant and memorable image of themselves, and Diamonds and his new compadres will not easily escape it. But if they do, it will be largely due to their live show. Islands rock harder than the Unicorns ever did, and in the long run they will probably have a more lasting influence. They may not last forever, but Islands won’t disappear overnight.
John Ruscher is a fourth-year English major who was born a leprechaun, actually.