Islands is a band that's been through a lot over the course of the career, with many change-ups in style and personnel. Through it all, Nick Thorburn has managed to slowly build up the act in an innovative and astounding institution that can always be counted on to do the unexpected.
Which is why I should come as now surprise that the video for Islands' latest outing, "Hallways," from the album A Sleep & A Forgetting, is one of the most enjoyable and brilliant bits of cinemaudio that we've covered in the course of this column. It's part Henry Selick, part Muppets, part Lynch, and all good.
Thorburn investigates a mysterious phonograph, only to be drawn down into a strange world where he is obliged to sing one of his latest little love-and-loss songs backed by some fantastic puppet skeletons. The tone of the tune is a toe-tapping mixture of modern indie and old-school doo-wop that makes it timeless sounding.
Directors Lex Halaby and Toben Seymour have mastered the mixture of what is fun-disturbing, and what is freaky-disturbing. Their undead band is an affable group of performers.
If they had skin, we imagine it would be wrinkled with laugh lines, if they had hair it would be thinning and topped with improbable hats. They shuck and jive behind the crooning Thorburn, busting out dance moves, spinning the upright bass, and playing the piano with their feet.
It's like someone took the weird radiator scenes from Eraserhead and replaced the chick with the bloated cheeks with a light-hearted Muppet Show routine. Actually, some found-footage genius like Michael Robinson should probably get to work on that.
Then, just as the party is reaching full swing, one of the skeletons takes Thorburn off of his feet with one of those giant hooks you used to see in the Looney Tunes. The band keeps the song going with a few awkward glances around until Thorburn slides back at the microphone as a set of bloody bones with one eye dangling from its socket and the shredded remains of his stylish coat.
He enthusiastically finishes the song on a high energy note, then the performers crumple to the floor like at the end of the "Time Warp."
All in all, it's a simple yet amazing effort that shows off things in music-video art that haven't been done since the Residents. Backed by the broke-valentine track itself, it's already a top contender for our annual best music video of the year list. Check it out below.
We got to talk to Nick Thorburn about his little skeleton dance. Get pallbearers carry you to page 2 for the interview.
Rocks Off: Those are pretty damned impressive skeletons. How did that come to pass?
Nick Thorburn: I was in talks with one of the two directors (Lex Halaby) about collaborating on this video, and I told him I wanted to have a band of skeletons. He hired on his friend (Toben Seymour) as a co-director, who also happens to be an impressive puppeteer and they hired an FX company to build the skeleton.
He's quite a genial little fellow, and he has a lot of tips on how to stay thin. He would go to town on the catering table, eating to his heart's content, and it would just go right through him. By the end of the shoot, he was getting a fairly big head, and started making all kinds of demands such as making the crew face the wall when he entered the room, which was quite strange considering he was a puppet and he had someone's hand up his ass most of the day.
RO: You're going to get some comparisons to Corpse Bride. Was that a big influence?
NT: No, not on my part. I was inspired by old Max Fleischer cartoons. I'd always loved those, and recently saw a surrealist exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery with some Max Flesicher stuff and that sealed the deal. Lex and Toben were very successful at making the puppets look like stop motion. They really pulled it off.
RO: You do a costume change from sexy frontman to corpse... That hasn't been done since "Thriller." What makes you want to slip into a skeleton to take it home?
NT: The question suggests that I like to have sex with corpses, so I will sidestep the necrophilia undertones and thank you kindly for calling me sexy. Personally, I like a little meat on the bones of my lovers. Not just bones.
RO: Is this how the song looked in your head when you wrote it?
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NT: I knew for certain that a skeleton had to be playing that piano part.
"Hallways" is track five on A Sleep & A Forgetting, which is available on iTunes.