Ash being a singles band is no enormous revelation, particularly considering the company they kept within UK rock in the ‘90s and 2000s. The only difference is that Ash seemed to know this, and in releasing a new single every two weeks between 2009 and 2010, there were questions asked about whether the Northern Irish trio would go back to conventional albums. Of course, that did happen again, and while 2015’s Kablammo! was nothing particularly special overall, it reinforced the notion that Ash’s no-nonsense approach to indie-rock is still refreshing to have around regardless.
With new album Islands though, a simple singles band tag seems to have been removed, and this one falls in a strange middle ground between an all-around good album, and something resembling the work of a typical singles band but much more tightly packed. In other words, Ash have most definitely avoided flagging with this one, adopting the fuzzy power-pop veneer of Blue Album-era Weezer for an easy, engaging listen with its fair share of highlights. It’s made perfectly clear that this sense of brisk, uncomplicated snappiness is Islands’ greatest strength too, with the sharp, surging riffs and backing vocals from The Undertones on Buzzkill, the watery textures of Confessions In The Pool that’s reminiscent of plenty of mid-2000s indie-rock, and the Waterboys-esque shimmer of All That I Have Left, calling back to simpler, purer ‘80s power-pop and sounding really great doing so. It’s this lack of gimmickry or pretension that take Ash so far here; they’re well aware that no one expects some boundary-pushing opus from them, so they just deliver exactly what they’re capable of and do it remarkably well at that.
It’s definitely not great throughout though, and that’s where the notions of Ash not quite shedding their singles band status comes to the fore. Particularly towards the end there are tracks like Did Your Love Burn Out? and especially It’s A Trap, longer and more steadily paced that lacks a lot of the fizzing exuberance of the album’s earlier moments. There’s nothing exceptionally bad about them in a vacuum, but in their position in the tracklist and compared to what else is here, this definitely feels like an album that runs out of steam as it progresses, lazily drifting into less-interesting indie-rock territory with Tim Wheeler’s vocal momentum utterly draining away.
It’s a shame that such a promising start is derailed to such an extent, but even so, Ash manage to pack enough good moments in to fully make up for it. Islands is perhaps the trio’s strongest album in a fair while, retaining the spry youthfulness that always had a lot going for it, and playing to a classic sound that works hard to not sound tired or dated. Many will undoubtedly feel that it’s a bit too basic, especially given that it’s not so different from the much bigger bands plying this style of no-frills rock, but there’s a magnetising quality to Ash and this album that manages to give them the upper hand.
For fans of: Weezer, Idlewild, Supergrass
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Islands’ by Ash is out now on BMG Rights Management.