One virtue of a legitimate post-punk/post-hardcore musical landscape is the ability to move beyond the deadlocking argument surrounding what constitutes the true sound and lifestyle of those genres. In recent months, Malcolm McLaren passed away, Raw Power reared its Bowie-mixed head again (this time in a “Legacy” edition), Damian Abraham and Buzz Osborne made multiple appearances on Red Eye, and a reformed Earth Crisis hired a Fall Out Boy to play drums. In short, anything goes.
Future Islands’ self-application of “post-wave” as a genre descriptor could have been a major misstep, as it might have unintentionally suggested that the band was claiming superiority or transcendence over the music that influenced its work. Yet the term fits without question upon seeing the band live or listening to one of its independent releases like 2008’s Wave Like Home. Despite the presence of synthesizers as an integral instrument, the minimization of electric guitars, and the overall dance-music patina, Future Islands is an exemplary post-punk band. The band seems to understand that punk and hardcore derived their identity as much from an underlying spirit as they did from specific traits of composition and production. For Future Islands, post-wave is a direction that combines the sounds of new wave with that raucous rock spirit and channels both into an energetic and soulful form.
There is an uncommon thrill in hearing a band discover and deliver a fresh approach, and this is what Future Islands achieves on the nearly perfect In Evening Air. Wave Like Home contained a number of ear-catching songs (most notably “Little Dreamer” and “Beach Foam”), but the album zigzagged too frequently to attain a consistent musical identity. Additionally, the band has thrived in the singles format, recently making a splash with non-album tracks like “The Happiness of Being Twice” from last year’s Feathers and Hallways. In Evening Air escalates the band’s method in nearly every way, exploring new sonic territory and offering an affecting and modern take on the breakup album.
In a time when many bands seem to be dwindling down to a minimum number of members, it is common to hear an act that sounds too skeletal. Perhaps the vagaries of the economy have created musical chic out of the starving artist mystique. Despite having only three members, one of whom (Samuel T. Herring) contributes solely vocals, Future Islands defies the odds with a surprisingly robust sound. Synthesizer whiz J. Gerrit Welmers provides the beats, tunes, and textures, and his contributions frequently create a song’s first impression. Although the material on In Evening Air is not formulaic, there is a pattern to the way these songs develop. Welmers acts as a melody-maker and pacesetter, then bass player William Cashion follows closely after, turning in powerfully expressive yet still reliably rhythmic bass lines. Finally, Herring joins with his one-of-a-kind voice, which in theory holds up to Waits/Cocker/Mercer/etc. comparisons, yet in reality is distinctively and variably executed throughout the album and live shows.
Opener “Walking Through That Door” unfolds with deceptive liveliness. A listener only attuned to the upbeat tempo might not take in the longing of the lyrics, which hint at failures, lost opportunities, and the night falling slowly. The majority of Herring’s lyrics are enigmatic, connecting on an emotional level but leaving supposition of literal meaning and association to the listener’s own imagination and experience. In my mind, “Walking Through That Door” evokes carrying a bride across the threshold, though the song could describe any number of precipices or fragile relationships. “Long Flight” is somewhat more direct in its subject matter. Lyrically repeating and varying the handholding motif from “Walking Through That Door”, “Long Flight” is a song about discovering and dealing with infidelity. One of the album’s few weaknesses is the protracted length of “Long Flight”, which cycles through most of its good ideas in a few minutes but runs over five. Though Cashion’s bass work and Herring’s intensifying cadence are compelling, the synthesizer becomes distractingly repetitive.
Joining Hot Chip’s One Life Stand in the dance music-with-steel drums department is “Tin Man”, a number that the band has been playing live for months. Amongst the many pleasures of the heart-seeking “Tin Man” is an irresistible chorus, the singer’s surprising but inevitable declaration towards the end of the song (“I am the Tin Man”), and forceful bass playing that puts to rest any notion that this band needs a rhythm or lead guitarist. Title track “In Evening Air” is a hypnotic, wordless interlude that functionally separates the album into two halves. The song does not seem to hold any direct association with Aaron Copland’s “In Evening Air”, though Theodore Roethke’s writing that inspired that Copland composition is a possible origin for the night-falling-slowly section of the lyrics in “Walking Through That Door” (“I see, in evening air, / How slowly dark comes down on what we do”).
The subdued “Swept Inside” features a calmer and quieter Herring singing some of his best lyrics (“By the shattered calls of a mother’s arms, all swept inside…”) in a gentle melody. “Inch of Dust” showcases the versatility of the whole band, as Welmers and Cashion one-up Air France’s “Maundy Thursday”, and Herring somehow sounds like Marianne Faithfull at her whiskiest and raspiest. The album ends with “As I Fall”, which uses a string section and chorus of synthesized female voices as a foundation over which the proper song rises and falls. Themes of sadness and disconnection that have appeared throughout the album reach a poignant conclusion as the string section slowly fades into nothingness.
The past few years have seen an explosion of exciting music from Baltimore, and this release places Future Islands at the forefront of that scene. In Evening Air establishes Future Islands as a band both aware of the need to keep pushing its sound forward, and one entirely capable of doing so. At a recent performance at Black Cat Backstage in Washington, D.C., Herring responded to the crowd’s calls for old favorites like “Beach Foam” and “Little Dreamer” by stating the band’s desire to move ahead rather than backwards. In Evening Air joins the ranks of classic break-up records in its chronicling of past and lost love. Creatively, however, Future Islands looks ever onward, seeking out the post-wave without pretense.
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