Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Album Review: Future Islands - Singles

Future Islands
Rating: Grrrr

Whether you will like Baltimore synth pop act Future Islands will mainly rest on your opinion of lead singer Samuel T. Herring. He's an extremely intense singer, who on past albums sometimes didn't quite know how to reign in his unique singing style, which can go from a whisper to a guttural howl in the span of a second. Live, he can be a polarizing front man, stalking the stage furiously, t-shirt tucked into what some of my friends have termed "Action Slacks," looking like a demented accountant who has unwittingly walked out on stage. Over three albums, Herring and company have slowly built their sound into some tightly focused synth pop, but have never seemed to be able to really create an album that remained strong over the entire course. Whether it is the move to venerable indie label 4AD, the addition of live drums in the mix, or just a renewed sense of purpose, Future Islands have finally seized their moment with their latest record Singles, which finally feels like all the pieces have fallen in the correct places.

You notice a change from the beginning on opening track and first single "Seasons (Waiting On You)," where the synths seems brighter and sunnier, the lyrics more hopeful, eschewing Herring's usual breakup anthems.

On almost every song on Singles, all the elements come together in perfect union, nothing out of place or striking against the grain. From the driving beat, swirling synths, buzzing bass, and Herring's guttural howls on "Spirit;" the haunting keyboards that create a warm bath around intertwined acoustic and electric guitars and probably the most moving and restrained vocal from Herring on the majestic "Light House;" or the absolutely stunning closing track "A Dream Of You And Me," a sure smash single if more adventurous pop radio programmers got their hands on it.

There is a longing and wistfulness to most of these tracks. The lyrics are full of ruminations and sifting through the past to come up with solutions for the future. On "Back In The Tall Grass," Herring trying to make it work with a former lover but hesitant to get back into what once didn't work, singing "One step takes me home/Two steps back on my own/Three skips to each stone/Four steps back and I'm gone." Or on the delicate and aching "Like The Moon," Herring and a friend try to tip-toe around maybe being more, each hesitant to make the first move, Herring singing "And she looks like the moon/So close and yet, so far/She says everything/She knows me too well." But sometimes, things just aren't meant to be, regardless of how much you want it. On the intense "Fall From Grace," Herring's voice goes from a whisper to an almost guttural death howl, lamenting a relationship that just won't work, "Now I'm older, turning white/Watching days turn into nights/Now I'm older and I'm grave/Tell me, what's been left to save?"

Singles is an amazing step forward for Future Islands as it finally puts together the disparate elements of their past work that never could seem to gel into something sublime. The album is simultaneously introspective and maximalist, subtle and yet over the top. Herring is coming into his own with his voice, emoting rather than wailing, and getting the most out of silences and texture. Singles is one of the best indie synth pop albums of the year, and despite its many quirks, is surprisingly radio friendly. Hopefully, Herring and Co. can gather some steam out of this record and leap into the upper echelons of indie music.

Rating Scale:

Chilfos: masterpiece; coolest thing I've heard in ages.

Woof Daddy: excellent; just a hair away from being a masterpiece.

Grrrr: very good; will definitely be considered for my top releases of the year.

Yeah Daddy Make Me Want It: good; definitely invites further listens and piques one's interest for more material.

Meh: not horrible, but certainly not great; could have either been polished, trimmed, or re-thought.

Jeez Lady: what the hell happened? Just plain bad. They should hang their heads in shame and be forced to listen to Lady Gaga ad nauseam as penance.

Tragicistani: so bad, armed villagers with pitchforks and torches should run the artist out of the country for inflicting this abomination on the human race.

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