Playing Blues and Jazz can be a double-edged sword. When played well, the results can be awe inspiring, and lead the band in a positive direction. But if it isn’t done right, the players can open themselves to a lot of criticism. People who love these genres of music tend to be very knowledgeable. You can’t fool them. If you want to do it right, you have to tread carefully. And it’s a hard tightrope to walk. The good news here is that Vancouver band No Island seems to have avoided taking a musical header into the slush pile. Their debut EP, titled “Sign of the Times,” is a good first step, although sometimes the very things that work for them are also those that could in fact work against them. Such is the irony of taking on this style of music.
What works best for No Island is that the musicianship is very tight and the sound is pretty polished, especially for a fledgling unit. The production on the EP is crisp, which is great. But therein lays the problem, albeit one I suspect will be overcome in future recordings. Because the sound comes across so clean, the EP lacks a certain amount of grit and soul. Let’s put it this way, as technically sound as the album is, it would benefit from having a bit of stank on it. As a friend of mine once told me, when describing Michael Bolton’s music, “White folks don’t sing the Blues. When they do it, it’s called whining.” However, musical history is filled with examples of times when the musical attempt has been successful. Eric Clapton can pull off the Blues fairly effectively. Traffic hit a home run (at least on this side of the pond) with the song “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys. And let’s not forget Average White Band’s infectious groove “Pick Up The Pieces.” It can be done, but usually bands don’t nail it the first time out. It takes time, practice and – maybe most of all – perseverance. So let’s start by giving No Island full marks for trying.
The EP kicks off with “Out of the Blue,” a funky, jazzy little number that may bring to mind the early efforts of Toto or even draw comparisons to Maroon 5. There’s a little Ska and Reggae infused in the track. It’s palatable to say the least, and the guitar solo rocks. The horn work is admirable. There are some nice chops here. As I alluded to earlier though, I think what’s lacking here is a healthy dose of grit and soul. But hey, pretty good effort, things are off to a decent start.
On we move to “Traveller,” which opens with some punchy guitar. It operates as a bit of a parable of life on the road for a lost soul. I love the guitar solo in this one as well; it’s nice and crunchy, along the lines of something Steve Lukather of Toto fame might belt out. The horns and piano complement the song very nicely, giving the tune some welcomed flavour and depth. It’s a good story song and will pull you in, leaving you wondering just where the traveller is headed.
The next song is the title track of the EP, “Sign of the Times.” The shining light in this song is the interplay between the horn and keyboards. Unfortunately, what takes away a bit here is that there isn’t a lot of originality in the sound. I also feel the drummer overreaches at times, providing a bit of a distraction. I think the drums could have been peeled back a bit to better effect. All that said, this is still a very worthy song, and I have to rate it as my second favourite on the EP.
“Too Close to Home” has a definite reggae sound. It’s a good number and offers some yummy lyrics. My favourite line is “But we’re not alone here/And trouble brews/The problem with being honest/Is the truth.” And what didn’t quite work for me in the previous tune is a real strength in this song. I really enjoy the drum work. It’s spot on. The instruments work very well together as a whole on this track, and the results are aurally delicious.
My personal favourite song on this EP is “Who’s to Say.” It comes out of the gate charging, taking you along for the ride. It’s a little more edgy and driving than the other tunes on the EP, and I have to give full credit to No Island for some wonderful vocals and lyrics. This song powers through. Instrumentally speaking, everything seems to blend together perfectly as well, from Sara Lauridsen’s adept bass work to Keith Sinclair’s screaming guitar to James Wilfred Martin’s tangy sax to the rock-steady drumming of Mike Ferguson and the icy-cool keyboard work of Andy Rice. Great job, folks!
The EP’s final track, “To Whom It May Concern,” starts off strong and then settles in to weave its troubling tale. The instrumentation provides a nice, juicy framework for the song-story, and while the music is strong, it is not overpowering. The bass and drums work well here, although it is the sax that really carries the weight. The song almost operates as a bit of film noir, as you will discover in the tunes’ final twist. Lyrically, however, I find there are gaps in the story that I needed filling in, but maybe that’s just my take on it. That said, the song is a good way to close the EP, leaving listeners hungry for more of this West Coast quintet.
It will be interesting to see how No Island evolves over the years. This is an excellent first step for the band, and I really do believe they could go places. This could prove to be a break out band in Canada, and five years or so down the road I think we’ll get a much better picture of what they can do and where they might be headed. I’m hoping this EP can lead them in some positive directions. They key, I think, will be to let the music flow a bit more organically and not sacrifice soul and grit for polish.
Top Tracks: “Who’s To Say”; “Sign of the Times”; “Too Close to Home”
Rating: Proud Hoot (Really Good)