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all photos: A Digital Cure

The first of July marks Canada Day. Formerly Dominion Day – or Le Jour de la Confédération, if you will – and informally “Canada’s birthday,” it celebrates the anniversary of the British North America Act, the document which united two British colonies and a province of the British Empire into a single country, still within the Empire, called Canada. And if you don’t know, now you know.

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Of course, for you and me and everyone we know, every day can feel like Canada Day. Attribute it to the superior cultural arts funding or the nurturing teet of Montreal’s live scene or – let’s get stereotypical! – nothing to do and cheap drugs, but Canada just knows how cultivate some indie rock. Look at this year’s crop alone: Owen Pallett’s Heartland, Frog Eyes’s Paul’s Tomb: A Triumph, Wolf Parade’s EXPO 86, Caribou’s Swim, not to mention half-decent offerings from old faithfuls Broken Social Scene and The New Pornographers. Point being, we are undeservingly spoiled by our northerly neighbor, and we should pause every now and then to remember that.

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So it was only appropriate to spend Canada Day with Islands, a band who – tropical motifs aside – captures so much of that northern spirit: kaleidoscopic pop adventurism (read: of Montreal); impressionistic and absurdist lyrics (read: drugs); and The Foundation to Assist Canadian Talent on Records aided (read: socialism).

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Islands stop at the Black Cat on Thursday was part of a string of dates essentially retracing the portions of its fall tour spent opening for the Psychedelic Furs and the Happy Mondays. The band is still promoting its third effort Vapours, and as such, its set followed an established– but nonetheless satisfying – template, focusing on its new(ish) album, while interpolating only fan favorites from its winsome debut and the few accessible tunes from its “difficult” follow-up.

Cloaked in the casual cult leader chic he’s sported in press photos, Nick Thorburn took the stage flanked by three bandmates. For a band once associated with the sprawl of its records and line-ups, Islands have been streamlined. Gone are the violins and xylophone and bass clarinet and Jim Guthrie. While all of his bandmates may join him on vocal harmonies, this was undeniably the Nick Thorburn Show, the lead singer front and center, cool yet theatrical.

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The leaner approach didn’t necessarily translate to a softer projection. From the opening chords of “Vapours” through the guitar heroics of closer “Swans (Life After Death)”, amplification was given high priority. With ample credit going to the loose, spritely drumming on of Jamie Thompson, Arm’s Way’s two representations, “The Arm” and “Creeper”, lost little of their gusto minus their typical orchestral flourishes, particularly the former, a monstrous highlight on the night.

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But with the more traditionally “rock” set-up – albeit one still occasionally heavy on the synths and tropical guitar – Islands did lose some of the mischievousness and whimsy that made it initially so inviting. Or, in other words, while Islands can pull off a straightforward rock set, I’m not sure it plays to their strengths. Vapour’s “Devout” and “No You Don’t” swaggered, but ultimately felt underdeveloped.

Still, the more straight-laced approach paid off on two midtemp offerings that treaded closest to the harmonic pop Thorburn creates with Jim Guthrie as Human Motorcycle. Four part harmonies swooned through the Beach Boys sway of “On Foreigner”. “Heartbeat” – free from the self-sabotaging autotune it received on record – was both vulnerable and triumphant. Both songs blossomed live.

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Composed largely of occupying interns (tight dressed and high heeled) and teeny boppers (group dancing in communal circles), the crowd was most enthused by Islands oldest material: the huge, squiggly synths of “Rough Gem” and the breezy “Don’t Call Me Whitney, Bobby”. While it’s hardly surprising such bright pop moments would resonate with so much of the audience, it was still odd given the muted response that met the syncopated rhythms and hiccupy vocals of equally infectious Vapours standout “Switched On.”. The Internet moves in mysterious ways.

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Islands was preceded on the night by Active Child, yet another harp-electronic fusion act.

Mastermind Pat Grossi mostly sings in a dramatic, rich falsetto reminiscent of Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg . Press has focused on his harp, but he split his set between the stringed instrument, an electric guitar, and a keyboard, while keeping an on his laptops programmed beats. Those beats often featured big, wet industrial drums that M83 is well-versed in. At other times, pulsing slabs of synths had a cavernous effect.

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But back to the harp. On record, the interaction between the electronic feels more organic than live, where on Thursday the two elements felt as if they were playing in parallel rather than together. When Grossi moved to keyboard, the results were certainly more derivative, but the overall soundscape more cohesive. (And as sidenote, as a friend point, “When Your Love is Safe” absolutely cribs the melody of Gin Blossoms’ “Anywhere You Go”).

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It’s hard to fault Grossi. He’s from Los Angeles, and this night was not about being American.

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1. “Vapours”
2. “Creeper”
3. “Devout”
4. “Heartbeat”
5. “Where There’s a Will, There’s a Wishbone”
6. “Buzztone” (New)
7 “On Foreigner”
8. “Rough Gem”
9. “The Arm”
10 “Shotgun Vision” (New)
11. “No You Don’t”
12 “Don’t Call Me Whitney, Bobby”
13. “Switched On”

Encore
14. “Swans (Life After Death)”

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