Future Islands - Singles

One of my favorite tropes in pop music is the readymade greatest-hits album, the album so packed with perfectly crafted pop nuggets that every one of its tracks seems destined for airplay. There aren’t too many of these albums, but they all feel earthshaking when they come along: Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, Def Leppard’s Hysteria, Michael Jackson’s Bad, Adele’s 21, the first half of the Killers’ Hot Fuss. The most remarkable thing about Taylor Swift’s run is that every one of her albums could conceivably fit the definition. On a song that only appeared as a bonus track on his last album, Drake said, “My latest shit is more like a greatest-hits, goddam,” and he wasn’t actually telling the truth, though Take Care wasn’t too far off. I don’t for a second believe that Future Islands, an arty Baltimore synthpop trio who were still playing DIY spaces a few months ago, are aiming for that sort of cultural ubiquity on their new album. But in naming that album Singles, the band is sending a message: That these are all fully developed songs, that they are songs that deserve to soundtrack moments in your life, that will sneak up on you when you don’t expect them. They are swinging for the fences with this one. And they are connecting.

It’s a magical thing when a band of underground weirdos can reach some sort of crossover audience just by focusing itself, without compromising what was always so great and singular about its music. This doesn’t happen often. It’s what Animal Collective did on Merriweather Post Pavilion: Crafting their miasmic fantasias into actual songs, cranking the bass, sharpening the clarity, refusing to fear whatever hooks naturally escaped from their throats. Future Islands are four albums deep and one of the most reliable live bands on the indie rock touring circuit, but they aren’t cultural wave-makers the way pre-MPP Animal Collective were, and their triumph exists on a smaller scale. Still, it’s an absolute and unqualified triumph. Future Islands’ surging, swelling, dramatic art-pop always deserved a bigger audience than it had, and the tweaks that the band makes on Singles are subtle and minute, but they add up to make a tremendous difference. On this album, the band pushes the tempo a bit, sharpens the hooks, makes its song-structures just a tiny bit more firm and concrete. Producer Chris Coady, who’s formerly worked magic with fellow Baltimore keyboard dramatists Beach House, layers their sound even as he compresses it, adding elastic snap to the bass and punch to the synthetic drums. And singer Samuel T. Herring finds that, when he colors within the lines, he can really let his voice go.

There’s a case to be made that Herring is, at this exact moment, our single greatest working indie rock frontman. You can see it in his stage demeanor — T-shirt tucked into Dockers, thinning hair swept rakishly to the side, veins pulsing with electricity, like some ’50s-everyman melodramatic hero made flesh before you in the club. It’s there in the vigorous, instinctive dance moves that sent Future Islands’ Letterman performance viral. But it’s especially there in his voice, a poised and erudite and generally batshit instrument that I’m afraid to describe for fear of not doing it justice. But here goes anyway: Herring’s got a fiery operatic tenor, dramatic and pyrotechnic like Antony Hegarty’s, but he wields it with an Otis Redding sort of fiery intensity, wailing and gnashing and building up to a new crescendo with every crashing chorus. Herring is a sincere and straight-faced writer, and while some of his lyrics might read awkward on paper, he sells them with sweaty, sinewy verve. The love song “Sun In The Morning” just knocks me dead: “Suuuun! In the morning! My sun! Every morning!” On “A Song For Our Grandfathers,” he cranks down to a simmer, paying devastating tribute to his family’s elders and still turning “Let’s be braaaave!” into a rousing plea. “Fall From Grace,” the album’s penultimate song, is the real showstopper, especially the moment where, for exactly one bar, Herring snaps suddenly from portentous indie whoop to pure venomous death-metal growl, then snaps right back into his regular flighty delivery. (Herring pulls that Cookie Monster trick more often during the band’s live shows, and it’s so awesome. I have it on good authority that at least one prominent extreme-metal band is campaigning actively for a Herring collab.)

Herring and the rest of the band come from North Carolina, where they started out as a conceptual art thing before moving to Baltimore, the land of the conceptual indie rock art thing. And yet in Baltimore, the band developed a blunt honesty, a heart-on-sleeve emotional directness that might be cloying if they weren’t so damn good at conveying it. The songs on Singles communicate simple ideas: I love my girlfriend, I love my family, I miss the place that raised me (the bucolic-as-fuck “Back In The Tall Grass”). “Seasons (Waiting On You),” the opening track and the most immediate hit, delivers a sentiment that men don’t traditionally express in pop songs: I have changed for you, and you have not changed for me, and we are drifting apart. It’s a song of bittersweet loss, delivered with a searing melody and a muscular and insistent dance-pop backing that’s vaporous and concrete all at once. It’s a powerfully rendered piece of popcraft, and nearly every song on the album is its equal. For the past month and a half, I’ve been driving around with a burned CDR of my digital Singles promo in the car, and it hasn’t left the player because I’m never not in a mood to hear it. It was a perfect winter album, now it’s becoming a perfect spring album, and I haven’t gotten remotely tired of hearing a single track on it yet.

It bears mentioning that this is very much the same Future Islands that’s already made three sorely underrated albums. Every year at SXSW, one group tends to emerge as the one that dominates just about every conversation during the festival, the but-have-you-seen-them-yet? flag-bearer: Savages, Odd Future, Sleigh Bells. This year, it was Future Islands, and there was something weird about that. Future Islands hadn’t played SXSW before this year, but they’ve been touring hard for years, playing every hole-in-the-wall in the country. Anyone who caught them at SXSW and left stunned could’ve seen them, just as life-affirming and fully-formed, years ago. 2011′s On The Water, which may actually be a better album than Singles, could’ve turned them into festival mainstays just as easily, but it didn’t happen for whatever reason. But Singles finds the band sharpened, honed, ready for whatever comes to it. And it’s thrilling to see a band like this do tiny things to streamline its sound, making these little changes without compromising its own personality, and blowing up on the strength of it. Future Islands deserve to blow up on the strength of Singles. And they will.

Singles is out now on 4AD. Stream it below.

Other albums of note out this week:

• The Hold Steady’s grand and fiery comeback Teeth Dreams.
• Liars’ dance excursion Mess.
• Thou’s beautiful Southern sludge wallow Heathen.
• Tokyo Police Club’s sharpened and shameless Forcefield.
• Shabazz Palaces side project Chimurenga Renaissance’s debut RiZe vadZimu riZe.
• Johnny Cash’s lost ’80s album Lost Among The Stars.
• The reunited Owls’ emo return Two.
• Fireworks’ raucous pop-punker Oh, Common Life.
• Earl Boykins’s DIY punk debut FRIENDS.
• Hardball-themed no-longer-an-R.E.M.-side-hustle the Baseball Project’s new one 3rd.
• The Bob Dylan In The ’80s: Volume One tribute compilation.
• The all-star tribute-album version of Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.
• The Range’s Panasonic EP.
• Teen Daze’s Paradiso EP.
• Washer’s Bighead EP.
• The Walking Dead Original Soundtrack, Vol. 2 EP.

Comments (54)
  1. This album is infectious. That bass line in “Seasons” has been rattling in my brain for days.

  2. It’s alright, but I think the only two things that really stand out to me are his voice and their reported meme-worthy live show. Other than that, the minimalist synth-pop feels politely familiar — a lot like Small Black’s first album, so the music itself doesn’t strike me.

    That Liars album is amazing.

    • Mess is fantastic and that [REDACTED] review has effectively (finally) turned me off P4k

      • Third on Mess.

      • Honestly, he was fairly on point in that review of “Mess”

        I was turned off by the low score, but reading through it, he really did focus in on some key parts of that album. He was incredibly spot on drawing comparisons to their first two albums. Before that review came out, I had the same thought about how the last song on “Mess” sounded eerily similar to the last track on “They Were Wrong…”

        It didn’t read like a review dismissing the album. So fuck the score, but I’ll actually stand up for [REDACTED] because it seems like he is a real fan of Liars.

        But “Mess” is fucking fantastic. It sounds like they took (my FAVORITE track from “WIXIW”) “Brats” and expanded it into an entire album. I got to hold a vinyl copy of it on Saturday but the record store wouldn’t sell it to me early… so that’s where I’m going after work.

      • They will realize their oversight when they discover that “Mask Maker” aligns with the Buffalo Bill dance scene more appropriately than “Seasons (Waiting on You)” (even though the latter is much funnier). Sure, I might have just forever altered those songs for all of you, but I also shared my secret as to how I determine my top ten songs of the year list. Today, everyone lost…

      • i have no opinion on liars, but the fact that perfect pussy, a band so unlistenably shitty that i’m convinced it must be a practical joke, got a BNM and future islands did not, tells me everything i need to know about pitchfork these days

        • Except Perfect Pussy are great and they gave Future Islands a good score anyway, says a lot when people get annoyed over a score of 8/10.

      • 6.9 isn’t even that bad a score.

        • By Pitchfork standards, getting a mediocre score is probably worse than getting a low score. I’m way more ecstatic to see albums I like in the 5s or below because I think there are a lot more people who are going to check it out for the mere reason that it’s supposedly “bad,” where as something floating in the 6 range is met with indifference.

    • I agree about the new Liars being fantastic. I’m still trying to get into this new Future Islands album. If anything, all of this talk about them has gotten me to listen to their older stuff which I like much more, so that’s great.

      I guess this is probably as good as a place as anywhere to put this but I am listening to the new EMA album and it’s fanfuckingtastic. I loved Past Life Martyred Saints and I think I like this one even more.

    • Ian Cohen basically used that review to say that Liars disappointed him or some shit. I’m not sure why, considering how incredibly irrelevant his long-winded piece on NYC club music was. I get the comparisons’n'all but they’re really flimsy at best. It has more in common with the self-titled, the EPs, and “Brats”. The “They Were Wrong, So We Drowned” comparison fails to because he doesn’t consider the whole range of the album. He just remembered “There’s Always Room on the Broom” and called it good. I mean I could go on about this. I love the confident types like him. He expects no one will actually go back and see if it makes any sense, which it mostly doesn’t. Phoned that one in clearly

  3. Today I learned the world “bucolic”, and I’m kind of in love with it.

    Anyway, totally agree with this pick and this write-up. Fantastic.

    • That sentence was helpful to me as well! I realized my leaked copy of “Singles” didn’t even have “Back In The Tall Grass” (Thus solving the mystery of why their set lists opened with that song).

      So I’m pretty pumped that there is one song on the album waiting to surprise me when I pick it up today!

  4. I’m not sure exactly how I would rank their albums. In Evening Air, On The Water and this album are all great. There isn’t a huge progression, or even all that much refinement between them.

    Also, I realize that Letterman performance went viral, but it still astounded to me how wide a group of people spoke to me about that video. My supervisor told me he kept thinking about it. That really struck me. Having a song stuck in your head is one thing, but to think about a video of a live performance is something special. So neat.

    • I think all of their records are about equal, but people are going to rate this one higher because of the Letterman performance. I still think it’s the best because Seasons(Waiting On You) is my favorite track by them.

      • I rate it higher because I think it’s better, so…

        …But really, their previous albums had such great highs but were way less consistent – this one is great through and through. Just my opinion, but I hate being lumped into a group you think feels a certain way because of a popular performance on Letterman.

  5. I agree. Superb album.

  6. While I appreciate your conceit, I take the title Singles to be a double entendre — that the album is about singles, as in single people, not that it necessarily is made up of singles.

    Great album though — I saw them live years ago and they really made an impression.

  7. AS IT SHOULD BE.

    Seriously, this album is so good – their best and most consistent yet.

    Standouts: “Doves,” “Like the Moon” and “A Dream of You and Me”

  8. In Evening Air is one of my favorite albums ever. It got me through some really tough times, and whenever I’m feeling a certain combination of nostalgia and sorry-for-myself, I revisit it.

    That said, even though Future Islands are responsible for something that means so much to me, I have never really recommended them to friends. Maybe I didn’t trust them to overlook Samuel Herring’s vocals; maybe I didn’t want to let them in on something so personal.

    But with this album — this is a fantastic fucking album, by the way — they’ve finally made something that I can shove into other people’s hands with recklessness. It’s wonderfully polished. The choruses are huge. The whole thing has a sheen that was just starting to peek through with On The Water but with an energy that can carry them from Letterman to the festival circuit to an audience larger than I ever could have envisioned for them.

    They absolutely deserve it.

    Come to think of it, it’s probably a bit like Modest Mouse graduating from Moon and Antarctica to Good News for People Who Love Bad News. You already did everything I could ever ask you to do. Now go out and get that Coachella crowd. Maybe a few among will discover In Evening Air and be as moved as I was.

  9. I went into this album not having heard anything by them first. Maybe that makes me biased, but this is a superb album. It’s been on constant rotation for the past week. I know his voice is part of the draw, but I do love that as much as the songs flow together there are still some great surprises. The background chorus of “long way from home” or the screeching, hardcore-ish yelp on “Fall From Grace.” Very consistent, very lovely.

  10. Seasons + This review = Me very excited to hear the whole album

  11. “Light House” had tears rolling out my eyes this morning. It’s been stuck in my head for weeks.

    And “Fall From Grace” is a shoe-in for my Top 10 penultimate tracks of 2014. That growl. Wow.

    • Raptor Jeezy, all about them penultimate tracks.

      • Oh you know it. I’m an album sequencing nutjob.

        I should also mention that Liars, ace masters supreme at the album sequencing game, smashed the penultimate track on Mess with the 9-minute “Perpetual Village” as well. The combination of that and “Left Speaker Blown” is my favorite part of the new album. They’ve always been kings at closing down albums, so I wouldn’t expect anything less.

        Never forget “Brats” on WIXIW! Easily the best Liars penultimate track out there. (2012 was a great year for penultimates. Fiona Apple anyone?)

        • What is the significance of the “penultimate track” to you? Do you also have a list of the Top 10 third-to-last songs?

          • I find that a penultimate track can sometimes be a weak track on an album. They want to finish strong so they place something at the end that you’ll remember; sometimes the track before it can be a bit of filler. This is obviously not always the case, but when you find a ripper of a penultimate track, you’ve usually got a great album on your hands.

        • Chromatics’ “The River” with “No Escape”, and Japandroids’ “The House That Heaven Built” too.

  12. Don’t forget Hootie and Blowfish’s “Cracked Rearview Mirror” on your list of greatest hits albums

  13. Good lord, “Fall From Grace” is a chillingly beautiful song. That alone makes this album worth the listen.

    • Exactly! Every time I listen that song, it gives the chills, and I wanna play it again. “Fall from Grace” contains all the magic of Harring’s voice, that the other tracks in Singles lacks a little, comparing it to the last two albums, in my humble opinion.

  14. Excellent pick! Could not get enough of this over at NPR all week. It may appear simple and straightforward but this baby is complex listening joy. So much influence going on here in my ears, and have been trying to pin down who it reminds of most, and I figured it to be mostly our good ole friend, Peter Murphy.
    I also felt the album, On the Ocean (sorry for the pun) really felt like it rolled like a rolling wave, and this is conversely much more concise and specific, dedicated pop. Plus, Herring seems to be in a slightly better mood here, which is a good change of pace.

    What else is very cool was that for some odd reason, Faith No More was coming around to me, too, and that is front and center on “Fall from Grace,” especially from Faiths Angel Dust days, which is easily on my top 20 of all time.

    Really cool listen.

  15. Terrific record.

  16. ya ya ya!! This is the first time I’ve agreed with the AOTW. Love this album and love Future Islands.

  17. According to Tom, art music is not the same as art music:

    “Future Islands’ surging, swelling, dramatic art-pop always deserved a bigger audience than it had…” (Tom)

    “And also I like Oxymoron better. (Sorry. Not an art-rock guy, really.)” (Tom referring to the fact that he did not like the St. Vincent album).

    • In the great art-pop vs. art-rock battle, I will always side with art-pop. Also don’t get me started on art-rap.

    • art-girls > art-pop > art-rock > art-rap

      • awhh Tom and I think so much alike; def my #mcm. <3333

        • I totally missed that battle unless it is being waged right now? See I always thought that the attachment of art to the rock genre as a sub genre was more of a signifier, more negative than positive, that critics used to divide bands and solo acts that studied at a conservatory either for music or something else. It was like them saying even though most jazz and classical musicians had this background it was “cooler” to be undisciplined and free when it came to rock ‘n roll. But then in some people’s minds the “art rock” genre seems to have changed into some other monster that encapsulates everything from certain progressive rock bands to compositional bands to experimental bands to no-wave bands to present bands that are influenced by some of those bands but also many other different types of bands.

          I’m not playing dumb; it’s simply confusing as fuck to use the terms art-rock or art-pop and expect them to conjure the same ideas and sounds for any two people. For example, I’ve see and heard critics and fans lump Robert Fripp, Brian Eno, David Bowie, and David Byrne into art-rock and that makes the most sense to me because of the fact that most of these guys have collaborated or crossed paths at some point and seem to approach their music in ways that might not be limited to this one art form. But my ultimate question is even between these giants whose music discographies are diverse enough that they have all been credited with their own completely different music genres at different points in their respective careers, where do you draw the line on which parts of these projects past, present, and future fall within this ever changing genre of art-rock? Do you change their genre from art-rock to art-pop when their influences have been felt enough around the music world that any attempts to recreate this sound by voice, instrumentation, production, or arrangement is instantly recognizable by many and becomes a trend?

          If I fast forward to today, even though St. Vincent is associated with David Byrne and seems to also be influenced by Robert Fripp, Brian Eno, and Daivd Bowie (Mike Garson being one degree of separation between the two), I would say that her approach to meshing beautiful and ugly sounds with the more accessible coming out on top in her songwriting seems to be something that would be labeled under art-pop. Then, I would say that a band like Wild Beasts started out in the art-rock territory because of how unfamiliar their meshing of sounds was on their first two albums but as familiarity towards their approach to music came with each new record and they began to accentuate the more rounded edges of their sound, I believe that they have approached the art-pop territory on their latest album. I don’t know Wild Beasts educational background but knowing from interviews the origins of their name, they seem to be very well versed in literature, poetry, and art history in general at the very least. The fact that they are knowledgeable in those realms shouldn’t count for or against them or necessarily change the approach of critiquing their music. Samuel Herring and the rest of Future Islands have art school backgrounds and have talked of the influence of David Byrne and Talking Heads approach to art and music in interviews before. Also, a point of past interviews with Herring has focused on his connection with language and the types of authors that he not only enjoys but also those that influence his work with the band. In a Venn Diagram (horrible), I would say that these bands aren’t very similar in terms of influences but they all seem to be connected by the mindset that further exploration and integration of ideas from other art forms helps to inform the music they are making (reaching a bit further…but maybe this breeds familiarity and accessibility if they are looking for universal themes…a simple truth?). What other bands come to mind besides Future Islands when you think art-pop, Tom?

          Then, does anyone have any reservations about me lumping the Flaming Lips, Radiohead, Animal Collective and Liars together as bands with five plus albums, which try out and shed new approaches (like Buffalo Bill..never forget), have histories of flirting with the fringes of the mainstream but then retreating back into either dense and/or unfamiliar territory with each consecutive release, and had their origins of beginning as some type of guitar and drum based band? If not (in regards to the aforementioned question), I would have to say then that maybe just one key difference between art-rock and art-pop is based on how willing the band is to challenge the audience perception of their sound with each following release. And maybe further distinction would fall under the limits of accessibility with respect to previous releases by the band and how that relates to audience recognition of any artistic points of influence (Would it be too controversial of a metaphor to say then that Star Wars is art-pop and Star Trek is art-rock and maybe that is the bigger divide here? Yeah, I’ll save it for the thesis of a fictional university student named J.J. in my next novel, Everyone and No One Cares ).

          tldr: I know it is a bit of joke but those art-rock and art-pop labels are a tad bit frustrating to the point where I spend too much time thinking about them when much less time was probably spent coming up with and using them. Could we perhaps…do away with them?

      • > art

  18. “2011′s On The Water, which may actually be a better album than Singles, could’ve turned them into festival mainstays just as easily, but it didn’t happen for whatever reason.”

    Something awesome about this review is that I can agree with most of the opinions Tom has about Singles, but that last one about On the Water is an idea that has two years on my head. I hope that some of those who are now interested in Future Islands for this good album, their shows in festivals, the Letterman meme, etc., also give a try to On the Water. You can’t be dissapointed, because that record has amazing songs that I’ve been singing for a long time.

  19. Doves is the jam.

  20. As the first quarter of 2014 comes to a close, this and “St. Vincent” are the albums that everyone else will have to try to dislodge from my car’s CD player. Not coincidentally, these are two of the best live acts out there right now, and the fact that they can be seen in small venues is an opportunity no music fan should pass up on.

    Anyway, I’d still – just barely – give “St. Vincent” the edge on my AOTY ballot, but “Seasons” is just such a perfect single it will be a sure SOTY contender. And it’s not even my favorite song on the album!

  21. “It’s there in the vigorous, instinctive dance moves that sent Future Islands’ Letterman performance viral.”

    the sam herring mancrush is becoming a meme of its own

  22. I love that whether you’re seeing him in performance or hearing him on the album, you know that Herring just FEELS the music. Even in those rap videos we saw yesterday, you can just see that this guy is pouring all of himself into his musical expression.

  23. Tom – this is a great article – I think you nail several of the things that makes Future Islands so compelling. I was fully prepared to NOT like them when I first heard about them a couple of weeks ago. A friend of mine wrote on his FB page that he didn’t understand all of the hype – and a veritable fist fight ensued in that thread. I was so amazed at the polarization on these guys that I decided to explore them and find out from friends of theirs (we are all from the same parts of NC and many of my friends are good friends of theirs. I wrote an article about them that has since had hundreds and hundreds of views and many dozens of shares – it tells me that people want to know about this band – love ‘em or not – they got something. They’ll be fine. Here’s a link to that article – it lines up nicely with some of Tom’s points. It’s titled: “Why the band Future Islands does not suck (even though hipsters like them): http://doyoumuumuu.com/2014/03/07/why-the-band-future-islands-does-not-suck-even-though-hipsters-like-them/

  24. OWWWOOOOOOOOO!

  25. Surely the new Withered Hand and the Tony Molina reissue are as worthy of mention as the Walking Dead soundtrack ;)

    (If anyone is not familiar with the Tony Molina stuff, it is basically like freebasing Pinkerton.)

  26. really solid record, with great songwriting, amazing vocal performance and KILLER bass lines (my man on the 4 strings should get more props).

    Favorite record of the year so far.

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