The Mary Onettes second album is a marked improvement over their debut. That self-titled record had an icy synth pop sound that did little to help the songs come to life; the few that did hit were so in thrall to the band's obvious heroes, Echo & the Bunnymen, that it was almost embarrassing. Islands has a much warmer sound, with the jagged beats and cold keyboards replaced by warm strings and softer, more epic-sounding percussion. The arrangements are fuller, richer, and more organic as well. Vocalist Philip Ekström cuts back a bit on the Ian McCullough croon, just a bit, but enough to make it less obvious who he's cribbing his style from. The reduction of affectation adds extra emotional power to his singing and makes it expressive and effective, instead of jarring. Islands is truly an emotion-packed record filled with missed connections, failed plans, heartbreak, and death. Unfortunately, the band soaks the downcast lyrics in so much minor-key melancholia that it becomes oppressive as the record wears on. Song after song hits the same emotional and musical note until everything starts to blend together. It's not an unpleasant sensation, but it does means that the album is less memorable than it could have been. Maybe if they had sprinkled some light in with the darkness, or varied the basic template of sound from song to song, the record would have been more of a success. A prime example of a band who manages this trick nicely is fellow Swedes Shout Out Louds. Not coincidentally, perhaps, the Mary Onettes sound a whole lot (almost exactly) like Shout Out Louds on Islands, only with far fewer hooks and personality. It may not be fair to make such a direct comparison, but it is truly unavoidable, and it speaks to the derivative nature of the Mary Onettes approach. Unless they manage to develop their own sound at some point, they will be open to being compared to other, better bands, and they will always be found wanting. That being said, Islands is by no means a bad record. It's pleasant but it's unnecessary, and in an era of so many bands and so many releases, that's just not good enough.
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AllMusic Review by Tim Sendra