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Future Islands
Singles Nick Reed , March 25th, 2014 10:58

You could be forgiven for calling Future Islands overwrought. Hailing from Baltimore, home of the infamous Wham City collective (who subscribe to a strict "more is more" philosophy), there's an air of seriousness about their work that you don't hear in other modern synthpop bands. Their earliest work was almost something of a novelty, playing off the stark contrast between the music and the vocals - while the music often spotlighted bright, catchy keyboard melodies, the vocals sounded straight out of a community college production of King Henry The Eighth. To say that Future Islands singer Sam Herring has a flair for the dramatic is an understatement - he sings everything as though his very life is on the line. While Herring sounded like he was absolutely the wrong man for the job on their first releases (their debut full-length Wave Like Home was entertaining as hell for that very reason), the band soon began to write songs to match, and they've seen a corresponding rise in popularity since.

By now, Future Islands have their sound well figured out - rhythmic, chugging bass lines against wistful, slow burning synths, while Herring alternately croons and growls. If it's synthpop, it's an unusual brand of synthpop; the rhythm often goes over the melody (hence why bassist William Cashion always feels like the lead), and the dusty, reverb-drenched atmospherics sometimes take up more space than the actual song. They don't play fast, but they're focused; there's a level of intensity in their music that's more befitting of metal than any sort of pop. In a genre where many singers try to become "just another instrument", Herring is a true frontman; charismatic, theatrical, and willing to give as much as you're willing to take. He goes over the top and then some, which is truly refreshing in an era of lead singers who have become all-too-self-aware; for Future Islands, it's all about the performance. The result is something that sounds like Peter Hammill fronting New Order - you're not sure whether the music makes you want to dance or weep uncontrollably. You can certainly throw yourself into the rhythm, but it's not exactly background music either; every song here has that show stopping quality that demands your attention.

Most of Singles sticks to what the band does well; if you dig 'Seasons' you'll probably dig the whole album. In a way it almost feels like they're holding back a bit, as their prior LP On The Water felt more adventurous and out there, as though there was no telling what they were truly capable of. Singles dials back the craziness a bit (though there is one rather shocking moment towards the end of the album that I wouldn't dream of spoiling); it's catchier and less moody, but great all the same. They're at an important junction in their career - their prior two albums (2010's In Evening Air and 2011's On The Water) were critically acclaimed, and they've spent years touring and steadily building up their fanbase.

They've managed to parlay all that to a new record deal (with 4AD) and just recently played their television debut on Letterman, giving a performance that already feels legendary. They know that Singles could very well be the album they're judged by, and as such took care to make it as palatable as they could without losing any of their essence. Every song is focused; they're all between 3 1/2 and 5 minutes long, and they mostly follow the same formula. This can lead to the album feeling a bit samey after a while, but the songs are usually strong enough to mitigate that. When it's good, it's really good; we all already know how great lead off track 'Seasons' is (Herring called it "the best thing we've ever written"), but there are other gems here - the punchy torch song 'Back In The Tall Grass' and the massively emotional 'Song For Our Grandfathers' come to mind. True to the album title, most of these songs are lean and refined enough for serious radio play - of course, given the amount of songs about failed love and heartbreak these guys have written, the album title may just refer to the state of the band.

It's the band's willingness to dial back on the heaviness that really marks this album; while their last two albums were almost overwhelmingly emotional, Singles focuses on the hooks first, and as a result this is their most memorable set of songs yet. If you enjoyed 'Balance' from their last LP, just imagine a whole album of that. Wherein the past their lyrics could feel oppressive, here you get at least a glimmer of hope for the future. When Sam sings "People lie, people love, people go / but beauty lies in every soul", there's a real sense of excitement - likewise 'Sun In The Morning' feels like the first relationship song they've done that doesn't end in heart-wrenching disappointment. This makes Singles the first of their albums that really forces the repeat button; as good as In Evening Air and On The Water are, they're so emotionally draining that you don't exactly find yourself in a hurry to play them again right away.

Of course, there's a sense that the band could go even further - though all ten of these songs are good, 'Song For Our Grandfathers' is the one that really transcends, becoming the moment where Future Islands truly feels like the most important band in the universe. A little of that goes a long way, and for now it's nice to hear an album from these guys that doesn't sucker punch you over and over again. Their future is bright now that the Letterman appearance has gone viral (I don't watch the show regularly, but I can't recall Dave ever being that excited over a musical performance), and Singles is the type of album that'll prime them for the next level. They've earned it.