Artist: Future Islands
Release Date: 24th March 2014
Future Islands are one of many bands that I’ve discovered through the living legend that is Jools Holland, and like many of the bands on his modern re-brand of the Old Grey Whistle Test, I found them whilst waiting for another artist to make their appearance.
In truth, what really caught my eye was the way that lead singer Samuel T. Herring danced around the stage. I continued to watch out of pure respect for any front man who could choreograph an expressive dance routine whilst singing with passion and staying in time. The song was A Dream of You and Me, the last song from their most recent album Singles. There were shakers, and they were dominating the silence, it was foreboding. There were guitars resonating prophetically, the harmonies were synthetic and straight out of a modern nocturne and that too, was foreboding.
Now that I was feeling suitably chilled, ironically, in both senses of the word Mr. Herring let loose his unusual vocal style. Every word that comes out of the man’s mouth is strained, but in a desperate, ‘I need you to hear this.’ manner, and the passion is undeniable, which is something I truly appreciate when I’m on the hunt for new music. The best example of this is in the build up to the chorus, when he sings: “People lie, people love, people go.” nonchalantly, and in a matter of fact way, and even if you are someone lucky enough to have had a pleasant life, you would still not dare deny the man the sincerity in this sentence. In his passion, he can come across nasal and breathless, but it’s hypnotising, in the same way that Morrissey pulled the style off so successfully in his years recording with The Smiths and certainly takes nothing away from the song’s quality.
On the back of this song that had me so ensnared in its depths of beat and lyricism, I went out and downloaded the rest of the album Singles which was released on the 24th March.
With high expectations, I played the album, which opens with the track Seasons (Waiting on You). It begins similarly to the track I have just mentioned with dramatic resonating notes, but this time on the synth, really playing into features that make the band what they are; a largely synth-dominated band with pop-lead melodies and a typically enthusiastic energy. Seasons (Waiting on You) is an up-beat opener, firm drum beats that were built with the intention of tapping feet, or nodding heads, or even leg drums. The first verse however, “Seasons change but I’ve grown tired of trying to change for you, because I’ve been waiting on you.” shows that we can’t be too mislead by the music. If this were an English Literature lesson, I might say that the line, and the song overall depicts the tale of a man, to which waiting for a woman seems natural, and time-consuming, moving in tandem with the seasons. However, contrarily, and still in the theme of nature, he has grown away from affection, and goes against the natural order by moving away from something that he should be growing towards.
The song, as if following the cursive story arc, dramatically intensifies towards the middle of the track. The harmonies are almost discordant in the same overwhelming way that J.S Bach may have composed a piece on his organ, a Toccata and Fugue stretched out, but commands the same attention. Mirroring the mood of a man caught in between deciding whether to stay or whether to go, the song reverts back to the positive sound that opened the track, before revisiting the chorus. Finally, there are strings ushering the closing of the track, melancholic and conclusive.
There couldn’t be a stronger album opener, in a song just shy of four minutes, Future Islands feature everything that represents them, deep emotional subjects, intelligently co-ordinated harmonies and instrumentation that demonstrates the ability to effectively enhance the telling of a story within a song.
There are many songs on the album that follow this pattern, both musically and in ambience. For example Spirit, and Dove, and in some ways, negatives concerning the album come from lack of variation in vocal melody. There’s no denying that Herring is a good singer, he can pitch himself well and hit evocative notes and he knows how to make them last. However, there are times that I feel that the melodies require a little extra creative thought and if it was not for the instrumentation, you could very easily become bored.
On every album from an artist of a unique and distinctive sound, their originality can sometimes be the feature that drives in the last coffin nail. Fortunately, there are songs on the album that break the cycle, and ensure differentiation, and in many ways they are the saving grace that break up the similar sounding tracks.
One of these tracks is Back in the Tall Grass, a song that opens with a hard staccato, a hook that gets stuck in the base side of your mind, the side of your mind that bangs stones together and fills you with a desire to hunt mammoths. Needless to say, the opening riff is simplistic but effective. Herring’s voice is almost at the level of a whisper as it comes in, recanting a tale of nostalgia, stating: “We’re a long way from home, and how did we get here?” Something that most of us will have uttered to ourselves at one point or another.
In the chorus, the vocals rise from the whisper to a more strained exclamation: “I wanted you to know I was thinking about you, and you look like a rose, especially when I’m a long way from home.” And to complete the imagery, the song finishes with the chirps of crickets in the background, just as you may hear if you too were back in the tall grass.
Again, the lyrics may be in a similar vein to many others on the album, being reflective. Although, the musical choice really offers something fresh on the album and is the first track on the release that really offers the listener a chance to hear another aspect of the band’s ability, and for that reason, it is a key track.
In addition to Back in the Tall Grass, another song that helps dilute the monotony of the first four or five songs is Light House. It is the first song on the album where an acoustic guitar plays a pivotal role, but of course is not alone on the track. It would seem that Future Islands like to work with a wall of sound, to ensure that there are no spaces of quietness on the track, that all instruments are at work at all points and the stereo allows no room for a less than immersive experience.
For all their upbeat songs and pleasant reminiscence, there has to be a song where the melody mirrors the melancholia in the lyrics. We all know that most albums have that slow song, the one that puts the brakes on for a moment and resides in the quiet place where all anthem form. On Singles, that track is Like the Moon. The title of this track stems from a description, “She looks like the moon, she says it’s your eyes.” as we all know it had to be. The muted guitar floats along in much the same way as it does on a track from The xx; dreamy and complex, fast-paced yet deceptively so. The bass is far less dominating on this song as it is on the rest of the album, it slots in somewhere gently away from the limelight. Overall, this is the song that we all would sing in the shower, if we were feeling hungover, or if the mid-week slump had taken us hostage.
Finally, as the album draws to a close, the dark showpiece is revealed with Fall From Grace. The cymbals open the track amongst light and eerie notes from what sounds like tin drums or a demonic xylophone. The bass slides in, along the fretboard whilst Herring’s voice undergoes a complete transformation. This song is so drastically different from the rest of the album, I was truly surprised when I heard it, and did not anticipate one feature of it.
The vocals are low and gruff, like Tom Waits set-up on the backdrop of Nick Cave’s dark ambient work. The chorus sounds truly as though we are hearing his fall from grace live on tape, as he screams. It’s guttural and brutal and would not be out-of-place if he were recording backing vocals for a Cradle of Filth album. It’s almost uncomfortable to listen to, hearing that amount of passion and emotion, and this is something that I do not say lightly. Over the years, I have listened to a plethora of artists that claim to be emotional, honest and unashamed, and to date, I have heard very few things as full of feeling as this song, and appearing just before A Dream of You and Me, it provides the apt way to end an album.
Overall, Singles, is one of the most original records I have heard in far too long. I won’t pretend that it’s the best album I’ve ever heard, but it is however, something which I have not heard in a long time, as it offers a welcome break away from the mainstream and isn’t afraid to sound different. All I can say is, thank God for Jools Holland.
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