Release Date: Oct 11, 2011
Record label: Thrill Jockey
Future Islands have been poised at the edge of something big for a while now. The Baltimore-based trio made serious waves with 2010’s In Evening Air, a breakthrough album that brought a wide audience to the band’s jittery, anthemic take on stripped-down electro-rock. That album largely found its power in vocalist Sam Herring’s unreal range, with his ability to move from a low, Waits-ian growl to a surprisingly pretty tenor in the span of a single breath; in his howling, Herring brought an unabashed earnestness to barnburners like “Long Flight” and “Inch of Dust”.
Future Islands are on the up-and-up. The unapologetic romanticism of last year’s In Evening Air jettisoned the Baltimore cartoon-pop sensibilities of their earlier, uptempo synthpunk, and the newfound seriousness endeared the band to audiences, drew widespread critical acclaim — such as it was, in the independent music world — and propelled them to later festival slots more appropriate to the album’s title. Now, on On the Water, they’ve paced themselves, slowed down the tempos, and left room for ambience, such that the album’s fevered points hit much more poignantly.
Like the opening bassline of The George Baker Selection’s “Little Green Bag” in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, it’s refreshing when a record unravels with a calculated introduction—a one- to three- minute launching point that demands listeners’ attention, while buying enough time to arouse skeptics’ interest. When applied correctly, the strategy yields a skillfully placed window, easing listeners into the appropriate mindset to appreciate what lies ahead. With its eerie swells of rusty chimes and distant waves, the opening track of the new Future Islands LP, appropriately titled, On the Water, conjures images of an abandoned seaside home, rich in loneliness, but armed with dreams of summer.
For the Baltimore-based trio Future Islands, On the Water seems the perfect album title. Recordings of ocean waves crashing along the surf are both subtle and apparent, adding to an aquatically aural experience as vocalist Samuel T. Herring muses nostalgically about love and loss. Harmonic melodies and addictive hooks are indulgent of ’80s Romantic textures.
When I hear Samuel Herring's voice I immediately think of the likes of Hayden Thorpe and Joanna Newsom; great vocalists who are both affected and affecting, but about whom people will still always say 'I just can't stand his/her voice'. Future Islands' Herring slots right into that rather small list, his affected vocal style a blend of nervous tics and low grade mock-aristocratic quivering a little like Isaac Brock meets Swiss Toni. It sounds like an unlikely means of conveying depth or beauty, yet as last year's In Evening Air amply demonstrated, Herring is more than capable of combining pathos with artifice.
I've never met a person who didn't find something compelling about looking backwards while riding in a car, a boat, or a train hurtling forward. There's something oddly comforting -- but also kind of sad -- about training your eyes on where you've been while you continue to move on with your life. And that's the same sort of conflicted sensation Future Islands' oceanophilic album On the Water yields.
Samuel T. Herring, lyricist and lion-throated singer of Baltimore synth-romantics Future Islands, has written a lot of break-up songs. He penned some pretty vitriolic ones on the band's 2008 debut, Wave Like Home, and then he wrote an entire record's worth on their terrific 2010 release, In Evening Air. About four songs into their latest-- which contains such boldfaced melodrama as "I loved you and I still do"-- you get the idea that this guy might be something of a Sisyphus, relieved at last of the whole boulder-up-the-hill business but doomed to sit on the receiving end of an "It's not you, it's me" conversation ad infinitum.
Around 2008, Future Islands moved from North Carolina to Baltimore; in some ways, this move heralded a new, more coherent incarnation of the band. Before this there had been Art Lord & The Self Portraits, then, in 2006, Future Islands was born, but there remained elements of flux until the release of 2008’s Wave Like Home. The band’s dreamy, atmospheric, synth-heavy pop debut signalled an exciting talent, and was compounded by last year’s truly majestic In Evening Air, which was as musically hopeful as it was romantically heartbreaking.
Future Islands hold a special place in my heart. I listened to their previous album, In Evening Air, almost constantly during the Winter Olympics of 2010, which were a pretty big deal given my geographic location just south of Vancouver BC. It, like On The Water, isn’t a particularly happy album, but still lends sense of calm and warmth. Their music fit perfectly with rainy, 2 AM drives back and forth across the border.
Future Islands' second album In Evening Air neatly sidesteps the clichéd sophomore slump via a quantum leap in sheer songwriting erudition and heightened band cohesiveness. The act's first Thrill Jockey album was more of a piece than their quasi art school project debut Wave Like Home, and On the Water continues this trend, raising the songwriting and production stakes, while retaining the sonic signatures so recognizable as Future Islands—singer Samuel Herring's theatrical, emotive belt; the braying synths and bass lines of William Cashion; and the metronomic drum machine patter that undergirds the entropic instrumental chaos. .
The sounds of a lonely dock, St Elizabeth, North Carolina. It's the sound of lapping saltwater and mooring cables knocking steadily against wet wood. Slowly, out of this peaceful conversation emerges Future Islands' On The Water, the story of a failed relationship, the ghost-ship it became, a shipwrecked soul, the mermaid he lost, and not least, a tiny cult band coming into their own, on a record about the dark waters of love's sunken past.
The compelling nature of music is an intriguing expansion. Baltimore-based Future Islands has always been about taking that expansion and invigorating it with an emotional carriage of embellishments. Last year’s In Evening Air was a revelatory discovery for some, including yours truly and now, a mere year later, the band presents another expansion, On the Water.