As they say, there is no I in team. There is also no I in band, but the vast majority of bands are represented foremost by the singer. While this probably has to do with the human capacity of language and communication (one of our defining traits), the singer thus becomes the communicator for the group as a mere continuation from his duties on the stage. Yes, aside from a few rare exceptions (Van Halen, for starters), the singer is the one band element that is not expendable. The singer draws the crowd in with his/her voice, words and occasionally looks. When the singer packs something particularly special, well, lets just say these are bands you end up holding dear.
But there is a line between what is a unique and what is unnecessary, that once crossed can push a good song to the absurd, generally considered bad taste rather than a lack of talent. Antony Hegarty, Joanna Newsom, Tom Waits all could be considered guilty of this at one moment or another and are correctly placed as love-em or hate-em artists, company that now has a new member, Future Islands lead singer Sam Herring.
Now, my apologies to the rest of the Baltimore, MD bands. But musically, Future Islands are just not that interesting. Now Baltimore is not known so much for their local music scene, kind of like how they are not know for the show The Wire. The scene is there, some of the bands are excellent, but no one pays attention regardless. Future Islands don’t help the cause as much as they could on In Evening Air, they play a pretty derivative brand of synth-pop that can remind of old TV on the Radio and The Killers. Keep in mind that The Killers sounded derivative when they were new. But instead, much of what you will read about Future Islands lumps them with Dan Deacon, which is logical because they have toured together a bit. On the other hand, it makes no sense because they sound nothing alike. Rather, I would say they compare more to a synth version of Japandroids, musically. They stick to one riff and see how much tension they can build within it, taking what seems very simple and creating compositions that add up to more than the basic low-fi licks on which they are created.
Because lets face it, no matter how many times this sound emerges, people love anthems, people love builds, and people love dance rhythms. Get a competent singer (preferably a good looking one or even more preferably, a hot chick) and you have the formula for any success-level of generic dance punk you want. This is where Herring enters the equation.
On opener Walking Through That Door, you hardly take note of the vocals on first listen. Herring is understated, with a catchy hook and a driving pace that keeps steady pressure on. The melody exists in the space it should and the song is ultimately effective, leading to the best song on the record, Long Flight. This song also banks on repetition and building, pretty much electronic music in a nutshell. But Herring here stars and is able to show off his captivating voice, at which I remember thinking he sounded like Devendra Banhart and Tunde Adebimpe mixed together. Over the next several songs the other following reference points I considered while trying to tolerate his singing were:
– David Bowie
– Fat Albert
– The Count from Sesame Street
– A German Shepherd
– A Stroke Recovery Patient
Tin Man is where the it starts to get out of control and where Future Islands have trouble coming up with songs that dont include lol moments. Now dont get me wrong, I like people with weird voices, but the theatrical, at times melodramatic, voice of Herring is simply comical on Tin Man. Seriously, listen to the first verse of An Apology and think hard if youd rather hear an apology than hear the song. The thing about people whose voices tend toward the non-traditional, they have to have the taste-level to throw it out there when necessary and rein it in to make the big moments special. Yes by overdoing the theater of his voice, he has reduced the band to a predictable and mostly boring group who will simply be known as the band with the crazy voice or annoying or funny or beautiful, I’m sure he has heard it all.
The band does manage to squeeze out a few more memorable and controlled tunes, with Swept Inside sounding particularly like it was written in Vegas. But Baltimore continues to intrigue me with two of musics brightest artists in Dan Deacon and Beach House, and now Future Islands, who are new to me and have the potential to produce some big indie hits as is, but could actually make music that went beyond gimmick with just a little vocal coaching. But for now they leave with just a couple winners, a couple laughs and at least the potential for this listener to give them a chance to make something better than okay, something professional. After-all, its really the singer we are all listening to, whether we like it or not.