From the Usenet newsgroup alt.music.the-band, January 1996.
Here are some words
about an album that almost nobody talks about (and for good reason, of
course) - the final contractual obligation product Islands. Even though
it is (to my mind - and I expect that most of you are of one mind with me
on this one) the weakest of the official releases by a long shot, there
are some good things on it. (The Band at its clumsiest is still a stretch
more interesting to listen to than most groups at their best.) Since the
original songs are lyrically extremely weak and musically only OK (apart
Lost John", "Peypote Rouge" "Christmas Must..." and - (IMHO -
though no one seems to agree with me!) "Streetwalker" which are all kind
of musically engaging) what really makes the album worth listening to are
the small moments and vocal/instrumental touches that make something
special out of nothing. This is especially true because the rushed
circumstances of the production allows the album shows off things that
would have gotten polished away in the refining process if this record
were to have been put out at a sensible pace. (It had to be in the can
before the group would be free to do the "Last Waltz" concert on schedule,
which meant that there was a strict upper bound on the time they could
spend.) For this reason, plus the lack of a real unifying feel to the
album, I find I enjoy it best if I can lull myself into the illusion that
it is an illicit collection of sundry demos and material that didn't
make the final cut for album inclusion. Then I feel like I am getting to
enjoy an unexpected treat of rare odds and ends, rather than a slapdash
Here is a song-by-song survey of what is good and not as good about
Well, I hope I can look forward to some comments from other people on
other albums, and that people will point out stuff in Islands that I've
missed and left out of the above.
- "Right as Rain"/"Let the Night Fall"
- I enjoy listening to both of these songs for essentially the same
reason: it is a rare opportunity to hear how sweet and lovely Richard's
ordinary voice was. Richard was such an intelligent singer that there is
almost always something extra going on to punctuate the songs with
raw emotion, or growling harshness, or a demanding falsetto or - as in
Hobo Jungle - rich tenderness. But the songs here are so humdrum that you
get to hear richard just sing the lines, with only a few undemanding
"Whoo-hoos" and falsetto flourishes to adorn them. (Also it sounds to me
that one of the voices singing harmony in "Right as Rain" is Richard
overdubbed in. If so, you don't get to hear that often. Whoever it is, it
is a superb harmony support.) Nice sax from Garth on "Right as Rain" too.
- Hoskyns calls this song "almost unbelievably crass", and Chris Morris in
the CD liner notes can't come up with a single good thing to say about
it. But hey - I really like it. More fabulous sax from Garth, and Rick's
voice sounds really good. Interesting "independent left foot thing" on
drums from Levon. But most of all, what I love about this song is the
piano - I am not sure exactly what is going on, but it sounds to me as if
Richard is supporting the song with some nice rhythm piano - powering the
song forward with some strong chord changes at the transitions, and then
Garth overdubbed a series of wild, eccentric piano runs to leave just a
subtle contrast with everything else that is going on. Listen to this one
paying special attention to what the piano is doing and see if you agree
with me - it is just delightful IMHO.
- "Ain't That a Lot of Love?"
- On the other hand - I don't like this one at all. Seem prepackaged and by
the numbers. Unlike the title track "Islands" it is not unlistenable, but
I usually program past it. Even Robbie's patented "trilling" guitar solo
doesn't seem to come off set.
- "Christmas Must Be Tonight"
- I really like the sound of Rick's voice on this one, and the harmonies
aren't bad. Garth's organ sweetenings are pleasant. But otherwise I don't
really get much out of this one.
- "Islands" (title track)
- This one is terrible - If they were looking for filler, why didn't they
ask Richard to sing "I've got Dreams to Remember"? Sigh. Now I'll never
hear it. And instead we get this elevator muzak (nod to Hoskyns). Life is
just one long regret.
- "The Saga of Pepote Rouge"
- Now this song is fun - the dopey lyrics help the group just lay back and
have a rich good time. Richard's piano and especially Garth's organ are
downright jaunty - bordering on circus music. (I'd like to see this one
live, just to watch Rick bounce!) Nice quiet guitar touches from Robbie
add a lot. A couple of odd, wacky intonations on the harmonies - as if
Rick is trying to sing the song straight and Richard is trying to get him
to laugh. (Presumably that is not what went on - no doubt the harmony was
overdubbed - but there is something a little daffy in the harmonies that
is hard to put a finger on.)
- I listen to this one regularly, and it breaks my heart every time. Not
because it is particularly well
- sung strictly speaking. I think Hoskyns is right
that Richard oversings it drastically. But this just makes it more effective to
wants desperately to give a performance that will do justice to what the
song has meant to him, the way he made "Share Your Love With Me" (IMHO)
one of the Bands very finest cuts. But this time he doesn't make it:
the performance is too self-conscious to convey anything more than
Richard's overwelming craving to make this one really matter. And so it
ends up breaking my heart every time - though not for the reason it is
- "Knocking Lost John"
- A really good song - Fabulous accordian, the vocals fit appropriately
into the background (is that Robbie and Rick singing or Robbie on
both tracks?) letting the guitar/accordian interplay carry the expressive
load. (A good idea, because this is yet another lyrically dull, musically
- "Livin' in A Dream"
- Kind of pleasant, though I don't like it as much as most people seem to.
Nice bouncy organ from Garth, and more of that "independent foot thing"
from levon on Drums are worth paying attention to.
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