The Future Islands Problem

Every year there is a band that inexplicably rockets out from the depths of obscurity and ends up on all the year-end lists after riding months of breathless critics’ praise.  Though the music industry is now so fractured that these groups often don’t push themselves into the mainstream, they still become an annoyance to people like the people who run this site who devote time and energy to seeking out new music.  It may be a matter of only switching the station the four times the band is actually played on the radio, but there still is an irritation when you see the countless plaudits for a group that could best be called “boring”.  This year, that group is Future Islands.

We alluded a bit to our issues with the band in our review of Spoon’s show last week at the Crystal Ballroom where Future Islands was one of two openers, but we let our criticisms remain vague so as not to consume too much time railing against a weaker part of the night in favor of letting Spoon’s fantastic performance remain the focus of the review.  Our problems with the band began not with their performance on Wednesday, but way back in the spring when their performance on Letterman had a lot of music journalists and fans buzzing all over social media.  Being the diligent researchers and devotees of music that we are, we checked out their performance of “Seasons (Waiting On You)” and were left utterly perplexed how a combination of a boring bassline, a basic disco beat, thin synths, and a comical vocal performance punctuated by comically theatrical dance moves could result in such universal praise.  We checked out a few more songs from their album Singles on YouTube, and were left realizing that this same combination was present in all songs.  We remained nonplussed by all the adulation.

Now, we would like to stress that our criticism is not meant to take away from anyone who genuinely enjoys the music of Future Islands–life is too short to rip on what other people enjoy.  Our problem is with those who spend countless words trying to convince others that the band is “good” when it is nearly impossible to find something to truly recommend about their sound.  My first reaction to the band’s style was we don’t need a post-ironic take on Roxy Music’s “More Than This”, we’re just fine with the original thank you very much.  The band’s goal seems to take all of the artificial sheen that marked the worst of music from the 80’s, lay it over a never-deviating disco beat, take out all semblance of hooks or a worthwhile melody, and toss it behind a frontman with all the charisma of a guy who believes that karaoke on a Thursday night at the local dive bar is the highlight of anyone’s week.  It adds up to a package that I don’t know whether to take seriously or mock, and I’m not sure if the band or critics know which one is the correct approach.

Though I occasionally tried over the next few months to give them multiple shots, I still had the same nagging criticisms each time.  However, I still approached their opening set for Spoon with an opening mind; several journalists had raved about their live performance, and it felt like it would be unfair to the band to write them off without seeing them at their full potential.  Instead, the show confirmed all my suspicions of the band’s talent, and then some.

Each song brought up the same pattern: a basic disco beat, basslines that went nowhere, and synths that were so airy that they forgot to provide chord structures or even suggestions of melody.  Each song bled into the other, the formula never wavering.  In one of those year-end reviews someone compared the bass to Peter Hook’s work with Joy Division, and I would hope Peter read that and got on a plane and smacked this critic in the face–it’s an insult to compare Hook’s innovative melodic and rhythmic contributions that were integral parts to the brilliance of Joy Division’s music to this guy plugging away at root notes at an eighth-note clip.  People were looking to dance and get moving, but when it’s the same oom-cha straight beat for forty minutes it gets a little dull; it wouldn’t kill whatever it is that you’re going for to throw in a variation every couple of measures, pal.  As for the keyboards, it’s hard to come up with a better suggestion than just “do something.”

The vocal performance, which most devotees point to as the band’s strength, was its own sort of awful.  I can love and respect artist who put all their energy into delivering a show, but everything about Sam Herring’s actions made the entire affair seem like a “performance.”  There was no semblance of genuine human emotion coming through in any of his vocals or dance moves, and every movement and inflection came across as painfully rehearsed.  That is to say nothing about the deliberately weird affectations like the attempt at a human phaser effect by dipping into the lower register to deliver Cookie Monster-style vocals for an odd phrase here or there.  It was unclear what the point of the entire enterprise was.  I’d rather see Milosh the fresh-off-the-boat Eastern European immigrant deliver a passionate-but-fractured take on Styx’s “Come Sail Away.”

There was one moment in the show last week that proved the sheer disparity in talent between Future Islands and their fellow denizens of the Best Of lists, and that was when Spoon kicked into their hit “I Turn My Camera On.”  Spoon was able to effortlessly switch gears, and the rigid stomp-funk of “Camera” not only got the audience dancing but was a seamless part of their set.  The song has never felt like a genre exercise for Spoon (or a shameless stab at popular relevance), but a natural part of the band’s catalog, no matter how superficially different it may seem.  Contrast that with Future Islands, who spent their entire set trying to cultivate a similar style, and not conveying a genuine emotion for a single second, or even a competent dance beat.

What may be most distressing is that one can easily see how in three years that Future Islands will go from critic’s darling to a passe joke.  The most apt comparison may be Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, but as we have argued elsewhere on this site, even at their most seemingly simplistic there was genuine artistic merit to what CYHSY produced.  At the very minimum, they at least knew how to provide variation to their basic drum beat.

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