Return to the Sea

I never understood the appeal of Montreal’s The Unicorns. The band was heralded as the second coming of the low-fi greatness made famous by Guided By Voices, Pavement and Neutral Milk Hotel. Unlike its brethren, The Unicorns merely hinted at something truly magical, only a shadow. A few years down the road, the initial shadow cast by The Unicorns reveals its principal players as the masterminds behind Islands, whose debut album Return to the Sea is as brilliant and sweet a pop rock album as any this year. Songwriter Nick Diamond excels in avoiding tricks and sleight-of-hand, concentrating more on writing good songs. Diamond’s cleverness surfaces with the catchy, Violent Femmes-like minimalism of “Don’t Call Me Whitney, Bobby.” And enjoy a dumb pun with “When There’s a Will (there’s Whalebone).” Sea’s songs are instantly agreeable, loaded with gorgeous melodies, yet it is the album’s strangest song that delivers the most staying power. “Ones” features Diamond on guitar, backed only by drums and a French horn. The song winds, climbing and slipping over delicate guitar notes, pushing pier timbers soaked in reverb, cymbals swelling in waves, easing toward a haunting netherworld of feeling and sound, not science and numbers.