iM Premiere: JAMES & BLACKBURN – Island Universe
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A mix of 90’s alt-rock with hints of folk and a sliver of prog for good measure – it’s actually kind of tricky trying to peg once-Ottawa-now-Toronto-based indie rock trio James & Blackburn into any one genre.
But if their debut full-length Island Universe is anything, it’s that weird record that falls into some strange genre-bending middle-ground that increasingly becomes more addictive each time you listen to it.
The ten-track album clocks in a little shy of the 40-minute mark, the production is sharp, and the drums cut through everything on the record with a nice punch.
Lead Single “We Have No Names For Anything” is great opener, but if album stand-outs “Holiday” and “Good Company” are any indication of what’s to follow in the future from this trio then I’m perfectly content with that (and even though they’re not the lead single, they’ll get there eventually *hint hint, guys*).
Now, when I say it’s hard to peg these guys genre-wise, I mean it.
With equal parts Brand New’s Jesse Lacey and Foals’ Yannis Philippakis, and just a hint of low-register Gord Downie in his voice, frontman Owen Edwards seems to exude a deep longing nature when he sings.
To quote a line from “Dark Sparks”: ‘When I’m on top of the world don’t mind me, I’m just there to stare at the stars and the moon shining brighter than you… shining brighter than you’. The word play here is great fun, rolling off the tongue well, and when paired with Edwards’ voice really helps to bring that brooding lyrical undertone to the forefront.
With the accompanying staccatoed guitar work, the fun walking bassline in “Holiday” is something Sublime could’ve written in the mid-90s, and ambient interlude tracks like “Conductor” and “Merry-Go-Round” harken back to some earlier Sigur Ros/Godspeed! compositions.
Titular track “Island Universe” is a slow-paced romp that one can’t help but find a tinge of early 00′s post-punk about – whether that’s in its Cursive/Brand New style fretwork, vocal harmonies or in depreciating lyrics like ‘if it’s love you’re looking for, go ahead and look some more’.
Surprisingly, mid-album track “Two Trees” seems really low-fi in comparison to the rest on the release, though it complements the solo acoustic setting of the song and forms an interesting bridge into the back half – which does slow down a bit and play with layered structures a little more, though this isn’t really to the album’s detriment.
Album closer “Leaving” ends things on a sombre (predominantly minor) tone, with Edwards on solo-guitar backed by a series of eerily-sustained tones, asking ‘tell them to find the sunshine in me’ – before ending on an unexpected E-major chord, tying the album back together.
This is truly a great piece of work – all the more so for a debut – and with a few sing-alongs, some dancier numbers and slower lulls along the path, Island Universe shows just how diverse James & Blackburn can be, leaving much to the imagination about what they might create in the future.
I eagerly look forward to it.
- RYAN STEPHENSON PRICE
UPCOMING SHOW DATES:
Jan. 19 – Ottawa @ Mercury Lounge w/StillNative
Jan. 20 – Toronto @ Rancho Relaxo w/The Abbreviations and Rebel Rebel
Jan. 21 – Kingston @ The Mansion w/Beekeeper and Hue