Vapours is the third album by Islands, and maybe the seventh by prolific and protean bandleader Nick Thorburn (credited here as Nick "Diamonds" Thorburn-Swann), whose other projects thus far include the Unicorns, th' Corn Gangg, Reefer, and Human Highway. Islands' debut, Return to the Sea, was something of an artistic rebirth for Thorburn after the almost theatrical demise of the Unicorns, and this was reflected in its lyrical themes of life after death, its darkly comic tales of dystopian survivalism, and its glimpses of tropical/heavenly paradises (the tropics were also evoked in the album's odd calypso moods). Middling sophomore album Arm's Way found Islands swollen from open-door bedroom recording project to six-member band, complete with dual violinists, and Thorburn's songs grew increasingly baroque and meandering to match.
Vapours doesn't quite return to The Sea's once-in-an-afterlife wellspring, but it does smartly scale back the extravagances of Arm's Way. (Of its relatively stripped-down sound, Thorburn told Pitchfork, "I needed to withdraw from overblown metaphors and filling every possible sonic space.") The pizzicato strings are still here, but they play second (and third) fiddle to the album's alternately chintzy and cool gliding synths. The album has a sense of steady propulsion that the earnestly exuberant Return to the Sea didn't need, but from which Arm's Way, with its relatively sprawling rock classicism, perhaps could have benefited.
That propulsion properly kicks off with "No You Don't," which finds Thorburn cod-rapping, "Don't buy dope from the man you don't know" over a zombie-marching drum-machine beat and eerie, burbling fun-house organs, and reaches some sweet, strange pop heights with the gentle groove of the title track, the playful riffing of "Disarming the Car Bomb," and the cooing half-time chorus of "Tender Torture."
It's not all one straightforward streak, and there are some expectedly unexpected turns. "On Foreigner" begins with an icy, angelic chorus that sounds lifted from the final, snow-falling scene of Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands. On the millionth song ever named "Heartbeat," Thorburn dons some dubious Auto-Tuning (is it possible the rap impresario of th' Corn Gangg would defy Jay-Z's "Death of Auto-Tune" pronouncement?) and sings, "I might be wrong/But I don't think you could sing along... Cued up the major third/But you don't know, you just take my word."
If it sounds like a snide, music-geek dig, it's a well-earned one—even in his weakest work, Thorburn displays a facile ability to twist textbook-level songcraft to whatever weird whims strike him, and Vapours is a much stronger showing than the band's last time out.