I don’t often sing the praises of modern popular music, since in general my musical tastes scurry back through the decades at the slightest hint of auto-tune. But if I have any praise for our current musical landscape, it’s that there seems now to be more and more room in the mainstream for the sonically odd, the unconventional, the offbeat – those indefinable genre-benders who choose instrumentation we don’t expect and eccentric vocals that Simon Cowell wouldn’t let anywhere near the X Factor stage. Future Islands catapulted themselves to the top of that list with their March 2014 performance on Letterman.
The clip went semi-viral, which is when most of us met this oddball band from Baltimore – they performed “Seasons (Waiting On You),” the first single from their 2014 release, ‘Singles‘. Watching frontman Samuel T. Herring for the first time is equal parts exciting and unsettling, because he matches his raw vocals with fierce, stage-actor delivery in both gesture and facial expression. And all this while dancing frenetically, with perhaps the most aggressive step-touch ever attempted. Is it camp? Is it musical theatre? Is that Henry Rollins? Letterman and I were both a little speechless after.
I was slightly skeptical that Herring’s stage presence would translate well on the album, but his vocal eccentricities, and the almost uncanny range of voices he uses throughout, capture that kinetic, roiling energy perfectly. Herring experiments with his voice in unexpected ways through every track, occasionally layering vocals but not at all in a heavy-handed way. That growl he showed off on Letterman surfaces on several songs, and builds to near-metal scream levels in “Fall From Grace,” a slow-burner that also features gravelly speak-singing in the style of Leonard Cohen.
Though it’s officially synthpop, ‘Singles‘ touches on elements from well outside that niche. With heavy emphasis on dynamic basslines that first push rhythmically and then ramble melodically through each song, the album avoids that sugar-coated video-killed-the-radio-star synth style that hasn’t aged well for most. There’s brass and strings to swell the songs where needed, and to me it feels like The Killers, if they were less glam and Brandon Flowers a little darker.
Every song is very much its own animal, which could feel disjointed – but the clever track sequencing is smooth perfection, moving seamlessly between lighter, more lyrical tunes like “Sun in the Morning” through the first half of the album, and resolving with slightly darker, more driven tracks in the latter half. And then cap it all off with a soft and subtle slice of heaven, the band’s just-released second single, “A Dream of You and Me.”
I’m not often grateful for social media clickbait, and rarely does a viral video turn out to be anything worth watching with the sound on. But I will reluctantly admit it’s not all that bad if it occasionally leads my cynical pop music ears to something as redeeming as ‘Singles‘.