When I asked Thompson the obvious question, "Why did The Unicorns break up?," he responded "I think a better question is: 'Why did The Unicorns stay together for as long as they did?' considering we all hated it like 70 percent of the time. It was just not getting along with one another on the road, and then being on the road all the time. That pretty much killed it. Me and Nick are both friends with Alden; we just really weren't made to be in a band with him."
That response came after Thorburn and Thompson had formed the band Islands, which rose out of the ashes of The Unicorns. The group had just released their debut album, Return to the Sea (Equator, 2006), a small masterpiece that pulled influences from such far-flung sources as African music, disco, rap and Motown, and incorporated them into an indie chamber-pop setting. But while they were touring to promote that album, Thorburn and Thompson had a falling out of their own, and Thompson quit the band.
Judging from the song "J'aime Vous Voir Quitter," from the band's new album, Arm's Way (ANTI-, 2008), the split wasn't exactly amicable. The song is an obvious attack on Thompson, who often used the alternate spelling of "J'aime" in place of "Jamie": "You said you had my back / But I was attacked by a pack of dogs frothing at the mouth / Stabbed in the face / Glass in my guts." (The two have reportedly since made amends.)
The Thompson-less incarnation of Islands found on Arm's Way is a multicultural seven-piece that still veers all over the musical map. The aforementioned "J'aime Vous Voir Quitter" starts as a jittery rocker with a dramatic half-speed chorus until it hits a passage that splits the difference between "La Bamba" and the mbaqanga music popularized by Paul Simon's Graceland. The staccato guitar and violin stabs on "The Arm" are punctuated with a string section straight out of Studio 54. "Kids Don't Know Shit," one of the more straightforward songs here, benefits from its relative lack of drama and a pleasantly distorted guitar. It's downright anthemic.
There are some noticeable differences between the band's two albums. Arm's Way is more immediately accessible, but doesn't offer quite the payoff that Return to the Sea did after repeated listenings. Return to the Sea's arrangements were more complex and incorporated those disparate elements into them, while Arm's Way songs are largely more straightforward with the odd influences tacked on as interesting flourishes. It's also worth noting that while both albums are quite bombastic, the bombast was a bit easier to swallow on Return to the Sea, due to its genial vibe. The Islands of Arm's Way take themselves far more seriously.
But in the big scope of things, those are minor quibbles. Arm's Way is a good album--just not quite as great as its predecessor.
Islands perform an all-ages show at Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St., on Friday, June 20. AWOL One and Crayonsmith open at 9 p.m. Advance tickets are $12; they'll be $13 on the day of the show. Call 622-8848 for more info.
Perhaps no other band currently in existence encapsulates the peace and love generation more than the legendary Crosby, Stills and Nash. Those gorgeous harmonies can take you back to a time that many of us have only read about in books, or seen in movies. But throw on "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes," "Woodstock," "Teach Your Children," "Find the Cost of Freedom" or "Marrakesh Express," and you just might find yourself wandering the streets in tie-dye, trawling for free love. Outside of the Beach Boys, it's tough to think of another band from that era with better vocal harmonies.
Which brings us to that caveat: While Graham Nash and David Crosby's voices have held up rather well over time (especially surprising in the latter case given the life the guy has led), Stephen Stills has become something of a liability. To put it bluntly, his voice is shot. And when a good number of a band's songs rely heavily on three-part harmonies, and one of those voices simply isn't there, well, let's just say you've been warned.
If concert reviews and YouTube clips are to be believed, the recently reunited Stone Temple Pilots carry their own liability, namely forever-troubled singer Scott Weiland. After endless trips to rehab and a bit of jail time last year for a drunk-driving arrest, Weiland reportedly cleaned himself up and got off the junk to prepare for the STP's first shows in five years. (He had recently been kicked out of Velvet Revolver for what guitarist Slash called "increasingly erratic onstage behavior and personal problems.")
But according to a New York Times review of a New Jersey appearance by Stone Temple Pilots at the beginning of this month, those problems have continued.
Some excerpts from that review: "Two weeks into this post-grunge band's reunion tour, (Weiland) seemed bedraggled and bushed, like a scarecrow. His first comments were barely coherent, and what came next was dispiriting. 'Sometimes you make crazy choices,' he said, in a distinctly undefiant tone. ... The tour is running through the rest of the summer, provided Mr. Weiland can hold it together that long. ... Sometimes you make crazy choices. And judging by this show, the decision to tour right now may be one of them. ... The feeling imparted by these performances was desultory and joyless. The band never rose above a sort of grim competence."
Not exactly the kind of endorsement Stone Temple Pilots fans will be pleased to hear, considering how happy they probably were when they got the unlikely news that the group would be reuniting. Here's hoping--for the sake of both fans and Weiland himself--that the guy has pulled his shit together since that review ran.
Crosby, Stills and Nash perform at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, June 23. Tickets are $36-$86.
Stone Temple Pilots perform on Wednesday, June 25. Black Francis opens the show at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $35-$95.
AVA at Casino del Sol is located at 5655 W. Valencia Road. Advance tickets are available at avaconcerts.com or by calling (877) 840-0457.
R.I.P., Tim Russert.