I was a little late in hearing The Unicorns, and about one week after I'd finally gotten their Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone? album, they broke up. They briefly reformed as Th' Corn Gangg, a side-project with MCs Busdriver and Subtitle, then once again split, with two-thirds of the band forging on as Islands.
Having heard the goofy, somewhat sloppy pop of The Unicorns, I was caught off guard a bit by how polished Return From The Sea sounds. There are still some buzzing analogue synths and occasionally silly vocals, but there are also plenty of horns, woodwinds, some strings, and an absolutely huge step in terms of songwriting and instrumentation. It doesn't take any longer than the first track for that to become apparent, as "Swans (Life After Death)" plays out for nearly ten minutes, opening with some strummy guitar and theremin-sounding keyboards before locking into a building verse and chorus that moves through several smooth progressions before dropping into a classic-rock inspired end section.
After the waltzing "Humans," the album hits what is easily the best section starting with "Don't Call Me Whitney, Bobby." Clocking in at only two and a half minutes, the song is easily one of the most catchy on the entire album, mixing slightly morbid lyrics with infectious instrumentation. "Rough Gem" does its best to top the former track, blasting gloriously giddy synth-pop punctuated by strings and reeds that hit in all the right places.
From there, the group unleashes the great "Where There's A Will, There's A Whalebone," a hip-hop influenced piece that starts out with swirling, almost proggy rock before locking into a great middle section that finds some Anticon-esque stream of consciousness vocals flowing before the track drops right back to where it started. Unafraid to mix styles even further, "Volcanoes" is a fun, country-inspired track that again finds the group rocking out for a nice ending. The album comes close to dragging a smidgen during the two slower tracks that close things out, but it's at least partially due to their following on the heels of the rollicking rest of the disc. Regardless, this album is a great deal of fun, and is among my favorites of the year so far.