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Islands review

By James Tappenden

From the Usenet newsgroup, 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 from "Knocking 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 official effort.

Here is a song-by-song survey of what is good and not as good about this one:

"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 me. Richard 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 supposed to.
"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 lively song.)
"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.
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.


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