On the heels of Skyscraper’s relaunch, we’ll be reviewing a number of records from mid-to-late 2010 that we missed out on covering during our semi-hiatus. Sort of a “what we missed” series of reviews, emphasizing both some of the best releases of 2010 and some of the most interesting but overlooked. This is one of those.
To warp William Carlos Wiliams, so much depends on a red-faced singer – in this case, sweaty Beefheart-via-Bolan crooner Sam Herring, figurehead and main attraction of Baltimore’s Future Islands. Formed in 2006 from another band’s ashes and associated with Dan Deacon’s “future shock” cohort, Future Islands began life as one of the East Coast’s many mildly-depressed-yet-cheery synth enthusiasts. Herring, croaking over tracks like In Evening Air’s spartan motorik ballad “Tin Man” and maunder-epic “Swept Inside” in a stricken growl makes for a beguiling genre escape hatch. Hell, just his tumbling sass on “Long Flight,” delivered with rhythmic reversals making TV On the Radio facepalm with envy, is worth the price of admission. Fronting a competent electro-pop outfit, Herring’s a startling presence and the kind of rare entertainer who rewards active listeners.
Still, if Herring’s voice throws down a gauntlet, there’s something to be said for synthmaster J. Gerrit Welmers’ and bassist William Cashion’ less provocative charm. All told, much of In Evening Air’s immediate appeal comes from the pair’s cozy, low-tech approach to a worn music. At his best, Welmers has a knack for wringing elegiac fuzz from unlikely sources, including endless sub-808 clicks and a cheapo steel-drum keyboard setting on the aforementioned “Tin Man.” The spectral “An Apology” nervously burns with a Casio haze worthy of early Creation Records or 4AD, conjuring the Cocteau Twins’ genius with limited means.
Where revivalist bros-in-arms like Twin Shadow and Zola Jesus aim for 1980s-style airlessness, Islands work the same textural topography lending Deacon’s Bromst such organic thrills, letting their equipments’ whirrs and imperfections speak for themselves. In a sphere dominated by cold-packed drama, the group’s yen for the elemental – Air’s lonely air, Waves Like Home’s seascapes – feels refreshing, like Future Islands hit on a new sort of sadness.
It’s unfortunate, then, neither Herring nor his band can wrest In Evening Air from reliance on heartbroken lyrical mush, though they try. Like certain Charm City counterparts (Beach House’s Victoria Legrand and Celebration’s Katrina Ford both leap to mind), Herring sells cliché through pure force of groaning will, but even he can’t save a record full of one-note navel gazing. And by the time closer “As I Fall” rolls out its desperate two-chord vamp and endless refrain, it’s hard to imagine any but the most woeful college sophomores hitting repeat. It is a shame since Future Islands really do seem to be onto something, a ripe grey area between Pere Ubu’s screeching synthetic potential and the well-oiled pop craft of, say, Depeche Mode. Still, whether a band so stuck on love-song lockdown could manage (or even attempt) a Modern Dance or Violator seems unclear.
Future Islands may have chops and a remarkable mouthpiece, but, for all the band’s environmental imagery, their take on Air appears to be more mood-setting tableau than exploratory. Given their trove of talents, one wonders what self-imposed boundaries Future Islands’ll stretch and when they actually have something to say.Visit: Future Islands | Thrill Jockey Records
Purchase: Insound | eMusic