"Woke up thirsty on an island in the sea."
Those words constitute the first line of "Ready to Die," the last song from Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone?, the second and final full-length album by Montreal-based The Unicorns. The last line of the same song is, "I've said my goodbyes, and now I'm ready to die," and sandwiched between the two (in addition to a Biggie Smalls reference) is "Don't pardon me, there's nothing rude / Things conclude, things conclude."
In retrospect, The Unicorns--who, upon the release of Cut Our Hair, became the next Next Big Thing out of a musically booming Montreal--couldn't have written a more prophetic epitaph for themselves.
Childhood friends and multi-instrumentalists Nick Diamonds (nee Nicholas Thorburn) and Alden Ginger (nee Alden Penner) made up the core of the 'Corns, with drummer J'aime Tambour (nee Jamie Thompson) joining later as the third full-time member. The band garnered critical raves and an instant fan base due to their skewed, whimsical and slightly theatrical lo-fi take on neo-psychedelic pop. But the incessant touring that followed Cut Our Hair's release eventually tore the band apart. Diamonds and Tambour would go on to become the primary members of Islands, while Ginger these days runs a record label, composes music for films and performs as one-half of the duo Alden and Adam.
In a phone conversation last week, Tambour responded to the question, "Why did The Unicorns break up?" thusly: "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."
Toward the end of The Unicorns' existence, Diamonds and Tambour began to indulge their love of hip-hop, and eventually formed an offshoot called Th' Corn Gangg, which featured Los Angeles rappers Subtitle (Giovanni "Gino" Marks) and Busdriver (Regan Farquhar) rapping over live music they created. Tambour explains, "Me and Nick lived in L.A. for a little while last year, and those were two of the people we knew the best there, so we just hung out with them a lot, and it made sense to make music with them."
The stint in L.A. to which Tambour is referring took place from January to March 2005. With The Unicorns officially behind them, the pair decided to sit out the harsh Montreal winter ("the kind of cold that Tucson will never, ever be able to fathom--have you ever seen minus 60?"), hang out with friends and begin writing some new music. Basically, they were trying to figure out what to do next.
In spring 2005 a pair of MP3s, "Abominable Snow" and "Flesh," surfaced online under the name Islands. "Those were done in Los Angeles, actually," says Tambour. "When we got back to Montreal and started working on more songs, we realized we were making a record that wasn't going to sound like those two songs at all, and so they almost certainly weren't going to make it on the record. And we had a friend in New York named Elliot (Aronow) who had a blog and asked if he could put something up on his blog, and we just gave him those songs: 'Put 'em up; go nuts.'"
Once back in Montreal, Diamonds and Tambour regained focus and set some basic parameters for the album they wanted to make. "The concept was a bit vague," Tambour says. "It would be hard to kind of explain, but there were definitely things we knew we wanted to do, and things we knew we didn't want to do.
"We didn't want to make a rock or an indie-rock record at all, and we were kind of starting to make a rock record in L.A., so that's why we went back to Montreal--to think things through. There were a lot of influences we wanted to try to bring more out than maybe had been in the previous stuff that we'd been doing ... classic pop music from the Motown era or before, and different world-beat rhythms, as opposed to the disco-rock shit that was all over the place at that point. And, honestly, rap music is like the first music that I ever got into, when I was like 8 years old or whatever, and it's been with me the whole time. And Nick's also a really huge rap music consumer, and so I guess we wanted to have that influence there."
The record they made, Return to the Sea, released the first week of April on Equator Records, contains traces of all those elements and more. Recorded with friends from bands such as the Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade and Redd Kross, the successfully ambitious album at times evokes the storytelling smarts of The Decemberists and the majesty and grandeur of the Arcade Fire, while avoiding sounding like either. It opens boldly with the 9 1/2-minute "Swans (Life After Death)," which lyrically picks up where The Unicorns left off: "I woke up thirsty the day I died." Elsewhere, "Don't Call Me Whitney, Bobby" is a musically jaunty anatomical study, and "Joggin' Gorgeous Summer" is a swooningly sappy love song with a Caribbean vibe thanks largely to steel drum courtesy of the Arcade Fire's Regine Chassagne. The hip-hop influence is felt on "Where There's a Will, There's a Whalebone," which features appearances by Subtitle and Busdriver.
Islands also address topical issues, though they cloak them in lyrically and musically savvy packages rather than beat the listener over the head with them. A musical cousin to Sufjan Stevens' more theatrical work, "Humans" addresses environmental issues even as it tells tales of cannibalism and rats singing "We Built This City."
"People have this idea that seriousness and whimsy are anathema to one another," says Tambour, "but that's not the case. They're two sides of the same coin. ... If you make high things into jokes, it can be a much better way of getting a message across."
A bit more grown-up? Maybe so. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about Islands is that they sound so little like The Unicorns. Waking up thirsty on the day you die is just fine, it seems, so long as your rebirth happens on an island in the sea.