The Unicorns' 2003 album Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone? wasn't exactly overrated, since it was fairly obscure even by indie-rock standards, but a circle of hardcore indie aficionados did praise the slight, excessively whimsical piece of DIY pop way out of proportion. Or maybe they were just grading on potential. Just a year after The Unicorns disbanded, bandleader-singer-songwriter Nick Diamonds makes a speedy comeback with a new band, Islands, and a debut album, Return To The Sea, that's a tighter, more controlled version of The Unicorns' wackiness.
The record is bookended by two very different but equally bright nine-minute epics: "Swans (Life After Death)," which strings together a series of short, surging instrumental signatures behind Diamonds' impressionistic lyrics and high, passionate vocals, and "Bucky Little Wing," which opens with almost five minutes of room tone before shifting to a spare piano ballad reminiscent of early Death Cab For Cutie. In between, Islands roam close to the twee fringe on songs like the oompah-inflected "Humans" and the quasi-funk "Where There's A Will There's A Whalebone" (which contains an actual rap interlude).
Return To The Sea is at its best when it's being jaunty but not silly, as on "Volcanoes," which weaves strings between a tight, soft, percussive folk track, and "Jogging Gorgeous Summer," which layers acoustic guitars and whistles like a latter-day "Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard." And Islands' best song, "Rough Gem," is what lo-fi indie-pop is supposed to be about: peppy orchestration, an unshakable melody, and surprising changes.