Smile Politely

Islands with Headlights (04/18/08) – IMC

I always like going to shows at the IMC. The space is inside the old historic Urbana post office building, which is a neat old structure, and the couches and paintings are very nice and welcomed choices for alternative furnishings. The place really has a good atmosphere for all ages shows, and the “secret” BYOB policy for those above the legal age. Above all else though, the bands and sound system work really well in the room.

When I walked in at the start of the Headlights set, I immediately noticed the addition of Shipwreck guitarist, John Owen, to the live lineup. The band had ditched their acoustic guitars and pumped out lots of pop-oriented sounds from their recently released and ever-so-charming album, Some Racing, Some Stopping. The newer songs really translated well into a louder space-rock-new-wave format and I believe that Owen’s extra guitar really improved and filled out Headlights’ live sound. It is a perfect accompaniment to lead guitarist Tristan Wraight’s own huge sound; he did play with Maserati for awhile, after all.

Right from the start they pulled out revved up versions of new songs like “Get Yer Head Around It,” and “Market Girl,” barely resting to breathe in between songs for the whole set. Old favorites like, “Your Old Street,” “Towers,” and set closer “TV” were dusted off, still sounded great and even rejuvenated. They even threw a couple surprise extended intros and an extra romantic refrain at the end of their first single “Cherry Tulips.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard them sound better.

Next up was the show’s featured performers, touring to Coachella in advance of the release of their own latest effort, The Arm (out 4/28 on Rough Trade). They came out firing with mostly new tracks of extreme cinematic scope. Starting with the lengthy builder “Vertigo (If It’s A Crime),” and segueing right into the glorious period piece and montage-worthy, first single, “The Arm.”

Next was the obvious second single, “Creeper,” with its symphonic glam/disco sound and undeniable catchiness. The newer songs really are an evolution of leaps and bounds from their first album’s meshing of scattered genres (country, hip-hop, twee, and R&B to name a few). When playing the adorable favorites from the first album, Return to Sea, “Don’t Call Me Whitney, Bobby” and the hoedown that is “Volcanoes,” although still great, they just didn’t stand up to the newer songs. They simply don’t rock as hard as newer jams like “Pieces of You,” another fresh track that goes through many phases before ending slowly.

Other powerhouse new songs played were “Life In Jail, “In the Rushes,” and “Abominable Snow,” all compact epics in their own rights. The night ended with the great Return to Sea opening track, “Swans (Life After Death),” maybe the one song off the first album that sounds right at home with the newer cuts.

I had always been a bigger fan of the Unicorns, lead man Nicholas Thorburn’s former band and leaders of the first wave of Canadian bands to explode into the indie rock world (The Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade, Broken Social Scene, Caribou, Shapes and Sizes, The New Pornographers, Frog Eyes, Destroyer, etc.). 2003’s amazing Who Will Cut Our Hair When We Die? put The Unicorns on the map and opened many doors for Thornburn. But Islands might have proved me wrong this last Friday; their latest release, with all the amazing songs I heard live, just might have me converted.

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