The Unicorns were fun-loving, witty, experimental . . . Canadian! And they’d been selected by high-profile fan Beck to open the 2004 Montreal Pop festival. But a couple of summers ago at the Sunset Junction, things looked iffy for the Montreal-based indie-pop trio. Multi-instrumentalists/singers Nick Diamonds and Alden Ginger, along with drummer J’aime Tambour, took the main stage in the afternoon — and from the Rough Trade dudes in buttless chaps to the Mia Farrow–look-alikes in ginormo ’70s sunglasses to the beer-swilling indie lifers in Chucks, no one paid a lick of attention. The show proceeded to get fuck-you messy. And the Unicorns broke up soon after in a fog of rumors, with only one cultish but beloved U.S. release, Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone?
“It had gotten sort of bitter and resentful, but it wasn’t something I was ready to end,” Diamonds says, talking from Massachusetts, where he’s on tour with his new band, Islands. “It was sort of forced upon me, not by anyone in particular, necessarily . . . People misunderstood the Unicorns. We were ‘silly,’ ‘whimsical’ and other words that drove us crazy.” For a brief stint while living in Los Angeles, Diamonds created a hip-hop outfit called Th’ Corn Gangg, but it was short-lived, a “palate cleanser.”
Islands, which includes Tambour, bassist Patrice Agbokou and a Broken Social Scene-style lineup of interchanging extras, is like pulling the camera back to observe the wider region where the Unicorns roamed — a sprawling, complex, lonely, gorgeous set of islands, wind-carved and sunbaked. Their debut album, Return to the Sea, encompassing calypso rhythms and delicate classical compositions played by Montrealites such as Arcade Fire’s Régine Chassagne, might be the chilliest tropical rock ever. Other currents blow in as well, including meltdown psych-rock and menacing underground hip-hop featuring Los Angeles MCs Subtitle and Busdriver. The base of Return to the Sea is glittering, graceful indie pop comparable in moments to early Brian Wilson, if he’d grown up in a cedar shack and not the plain ocean enclave of Hawthorne.
For Diamonds, the record is nostalgic. The 24-year-old grew up in the woods of British Columbia and Vancouver Island and didn’t move to Montreal until he was 17. “All sorts of environmental elements factor in — animals, frogs and birds. Montreal had something to do with it, but it’s really a reflection on those spaces where I grew up.” Return to the Sea is also wistful for Diamonds’ childhood favorites, such as Paul Simon’s Afropop landmark Graceland; and Diamonds swears the Dirty Dancing soundtrack has its claws in Return to the Sea as well. “Remember that ‘How do you call your loverboy’ song?” he laughs, referencing Mickey & Sylvia’s campy “Love Is Strange.” “I used to get down on all fours to that song, just to freak out my older sister.”
With songs ranging from 10 minutes to two, covered in a multitude of instruments including accordion, violin, French horn, charango, cuica and something called a steak fiddle, Return to the Sea sounds auspiciously conceived, polished and reworked to a point where tight still sounds easy and comfortable, an old pair of expensive shoes. Diamonds says otherwise. “It might be mental illness, maybe chronic fatigue, but I have a really laissez-faire attitude that permeates everything I do. I just let things happen.” Within a couple of months last year, Islands had the album written and recorded, partially in Tambour’s apartment. “It was really spontaneous and casual. It was whatever came out of our fingertips.”
The only song Diamonds will admit to preconceiving to a certain degree is “Where There’s a Will There’s a Whalebone,” anchored by a spindly Johnny Marr–like bit of guitar reverb, Diamonds’ spooked lyrics (“I let my backbone slide into the ether”), and the brainy, skittering rhymes of Subtitle and Busdriver. Diamonds and Tambour had met Subtitle and knew they wanted him on the song from the beginning; Subtitle brought in Busdriver. “It’s the centerpiece of the record,” Diamonds says. “It pushes the themes of isolation, abandonment and alienation to the fore. To be surrounded by water, the waves washing over you. You love it, but it’s menacing.”
Perhaps the counterpoint to “Where There’s a Will” is the closer, “Bucky Little Wing.” Nearly five minutes of a real storm Diamonds recorded — soft rain occasionally interrupted by clattering thunder — opens the hidden track before it blooms into a gentle piano song about a childhood friend. “I felt a little weird about turning this real person into a song,” Diamonds says. “I wanted to keep it personal, a little hidden. It’s like something someone would whisper in your ear in a crowded room. If you heard it, better for you. But if you missed it . . .”
The song is evocative of its setting: friends crowded around a piano singing, sniffles and laughter in the background, some glasses clinking. “It was a happy accident,” says Diamonds. “That’s what Islands has been about for me — blindly stumbling into something magical.”