The tradition of mainland pop artists doing Hawaiian albums dates back to at least as far as Elvis Presley's day. More recently, the indie world has seen such forays made by Seattle/U.S.E's own Jason Holstrom (Thieves of Kailua) and Vancouver, BC's Secret Mommy (Hawaii 5.0). Now, Unicorns/Islands mastermind Nick Thorburn makes his entry into the genre with the self-titled debut of his new project Reefer (as in both coral and chronic, naturally).
Recorded on location in Maui with L.A. hiphop producer Daddy Kev, Reefer has the sound and feel of an off-the-cuff, campfire-lit session of beachside songs caught on digital recorder; waves of background noise get in between the songs like sand in between your toes. As usual, Thorburn's singing and guitar playing are deft, and his lyrics equal parts doom and gloom and lighthearted wordplay (nowhere more so than on "May Baleen," which could've passed as an Islands track in another life), but these songs sound less labored-over than anything in his oeuvre—like sketches, really, stitched together with Kev into 11 tracks (including three brief sound-collage interludes, two remixes from Dntel and Flying Lotus, and a cover of "Blue Moon").
At some point, one can no longer refer to this sort of thing as a side project, as Thorburn has become prolific and diffuse enough a songwriter (see also: Human Highway, Th' Corn Gangg) as to have no discernible center. Islands' last album, Arm's Way, abandoned some of Thorburn's more eccentric songwriting tendencies in favor of merely well-executed classic-rock bombast (and one disco-pop number). At the time, it seemed like a worrisome sign that Thorburn had folded up his freak flag; turns out, he was just planting it elsewhere. Still, one longs for a single Thorburn project that combines the well-honed musical muscle of Islands with the stoned flights of fancy of Reefer, rather than spreading too thin his considerable gifts.