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Saturday, June 22, 2024
The Observer

Winding roads and reverie on ISLAND’s debut album


The first time I listened to Oxford-formed, London-based four-piece ISLAND, I was driving north along the winding Olympic Peninsula of Washington. Maybe it was the narrowly turning, tree-lined highway or maybe it was the ocean's mist that can engulf cars and suspend any sense of seasonality, but when the track “Stargazer” off their 2015 debut EP “Girl” came on it was just perfect. And it was just the beginning.

ISLAND has been incredibly busy since the launch of their first EP. The band has released a trickle of singles and their second EP “A Place You Like,” as well as signing with the New York City label Frenchkiss Records (Hold Steady, Local Natives, Passion Pit). Perhaps most importantly however, they released their first full-length record “Feels Like Air” on April 6 at Rough Trade East along with an announcement of an expansive world tour.

The album feels like a culmination of the band’s journey both in its inspiration and sound. In a preview interview with tmrw magazine, the band explained the album’s thematic direction: “We realized we really wanted to make a record that could soundtrack any type of journey… with this theme of ‘driving,’ everything started taking shape and the songs kind of fell into place.” The album stands out as a refinement of where the group has come from and gone over the past three years.”

A ‘typical ISLAND song’ can be defined through layering: start with broad sweeping guitar chords (Jack Raeder), a smooth rolling bass line (James Wolfe) and an understated drum beat (Toby Richards) that keeps the pace steady, then add their signature delayed staccatos and some wistful crooning by lead singer Rollo Doherty. You’re left with a song that certainly evokes melancholy and tender sweetness — a song suited for a misty Washington road or Berlin club all in one.

Doherty’s voice has the lulling gravel of Yellow Days layered over the jam band aesthetic of Tash Sultana. “Feels Like Air” and his voice will take you on a journey through purpose, death and fleeting love. The album kicks off with “Ride” which establishes a wandering mood, asking “Where will I go?” but promising simply to, “Go where she goes.” ISLAND dares you to let go and come along for the journey, even if you don’t know the destination.

The second track “Try” is yearning and reflective, asking where a past love has come and gone while asking a core question of our purpose in relation to death. This theme continues throughout the album, such as in the almost chipper track “The Day I Die,” where Doherty exclaims “Straight to heaven or hell, I don't mind / Oh it's all paradise.” The album takes a wistful turn with “Something Perfect," which is perhaps the “banger” of the album in terms of pace due to its seamless maintaining of solemn notes of regret and what-if’s. “Interlude” follows as a daydream reverie that won’t top charts but reminds you to breath.

ISLAND alternates between literal and abstract with descriptive tunes such as “Horizon” and “We Can Go Anywhere” intercepting more reflective tracks concerned with hope and purpose in “Moth” and “God Forgive.” The album nears its finale with title track “Feels Like Air,” a true culmination of the group’s three-year development and certainly the next song for your #crying playlist. It’s a song about love, it’s a song about yearning and memory, it’s a song about heartbreak. The verses open with sorrow and “dreams where I’m your darling” before building up to the chorus where Doherty’s voice reaches its rawest: “I tell my knees I can wait, while you're waiting for a lullaby / Count the freckles on your face and remember all your little flaws that make my day."

ISLAND has an unmistakable sound — one that can be traced from their earliest singles to their latest release. Few songs stand out as radio hits, but like a number of emerging alternative and bedroom pop bands, they never set out to make sing-along anthems; they’re developing a texture and taking listeners on a familiar and heartfelt journey. Listening to ISLAND is like catching up with a best friend on a long road trip.

The journey closes with the understated lullaby “Lilyflower,” which stands out as the album’s only acoustic tune. It’s stirring and sweet, remarking “To me, you're so much more / You gave me my heart,” capturing the innocent essence of love as a closing note.

At 44 minutes long, “Feels Like Air” is a pensive and emotionally vulnerable album that’s worth listening to in order whether you’re road-tripping or contemplating that one perfect moment with that one person on your way to class. And after you do give them a listen, check them out in Chicago at Beat Kitchen on Oct. 1.

Artist: ISLAND

Album: “Feels Like Air”

Label: Frenchkiss Records

Favorite Track: Lilyflower

If you like: Leif Erikson, Palace, Yellow Days, Tash Sultana, DOPE LEMON, Grizzly Bear

Shamrocks: 4 out of 5