Islands at Off Broadway, March 19: Did they play whiteface to Wonder Bread indie rockers?

What the hell is going on with Nick Thorburn’s white face paint? At recent shows (SXSW in particular) the former Unicorns frontman and mastermind behind Montreal art-pop group Islands has been sporting enough stage make-up to make Robert Smith look like Robert Johnson.

After careful consideration, I can only come up with three explanations:

1. He wants his face to match his expensive, designer, white high-top sneakers.

2. He wasn’t held enough as a child and is now an extrovert who desperately craves attention.

3. He’s making an artistic comment on where he and his ethnically diverse band fit into the decidedly Anglo indie-rock rainbow.

While the case is likely a combination of the first two theories, the latter makes for more interesting discussion so we shall proceed accordingly. Islands are as diverse as an indie rock band can be. In addition to Thorburn, they feature a pair of Asian violin players; a black, dreadlocked, bass player; and a white lead-guitar player who looks like he spends as much time smoking out and playing Guitar Hero as he does the real thing. And let’s not forget that they are all French-Canadian, which is its own peculiar heritage. The audience meanwhile, was whiter than Wonder Bread. It was a typical St. Louis indie rock crowd. Given the fact that Thorburn was performing in white face, the dichotomy seems significant.

The thing is, despite what Sasha Frere-Jones thinks, the music isn’t easily pigeonholed as “sounding white.”

At last night’s show...

...Islands showcased their diverse influences and tastes. The set opened with a handful of new, unreleased songs from their forthcoming album The Arm’s Way (due out in May.) These were a cross between Van Halen and Johann Sebastian Bach -- classical time changes that retained their rollicking rock/pop melodies. On their 2006 album Return to Sea, the song “Where There’s a Will There’s a Whalebone,” features an extended hip-hop verse, but last night, given the absence of contributing MC Subtitle, the song was rendered as straight-up rock & roll thanks the employment of a booming baritone sax.

After another barrage of new songs, Thorburn said, “Here’s an old one for you St. Louis,” at which point the violinists launched into a bluegrass, dueling fiddles rendition of “Volcanoes.” The show continued to run the gamut, dabbling in Kinks-inspired garage rock (with the violinists manning a keyboard and a xylophone), calypso on “Don’t Call Me Whitney, Bobby,” (with one of the violinists playing his instrument like a Ukulele), and even a cover of a Sinead O’Connor’s “Red Football.” (Okay, that last one is pretty white, I admit it.)

Perhaps the most poignant white-face moment came during the two-song encore. Here, Thorburn donned a Blues cap plucked from the audience, almost making himself into a caricature of all the 20- to 30-year-old white males who packed Off Broadway to see him perform. After the song, a stellar version of “Humans” ended, Thorburn attempted to return the cap to its rightful owner, who would have nothing of it. In fact he proceeded to get on stage and replace the hat atop the frontman’s head. Thorburn, who was clearly ready for his St. Louis shout-out to end, was caught off guard.

Perhaps it was an unintentional reminder that no matter how diverse his band and music are, Islands are left with an audience as white as Thorburn’s face paint.

-Keegan Hamilton


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