Foreign Islands: Restart Now!

[18 March 2007]

By Dan Raper

Foreign Islands could be becoming the new standard-bearers of the NYC punk-funk scene. Opening for local heroes the Hold Steady and building a reputation for electrifying live sets, the group has taken over from where the Rapture leave off, just roughened things up in a particularly au fait way. So is their debut EP Restart Now! something to be particularly excited about, or just a timely case of slipping up into the limelight right place, right time?

Well, there are a few other bands making music like this. Another local NYC band is Shychild, who has developed this very enjoyable churning dance-rock sound over a number of years’ writing and gigging. But the elephant in any NYC dance-rock group’s studio has gotta be that already mentioned, the Rapture. To be fair, Foreign Islands’ “We Know You Know” has more in common with “House Of Jealous Lovers” than anything off the Rapture’s latest record, but still. It’s not unfair to say that without the Rapture, Foreign Islands wouldn’t be receiving this level of attention. The other band that will likely pop up in reviews of this disc are Klaxons. Enough has been written about them already, more to come when Myths of the Near Future drops Stateside, but any journalist looking seriously to flesh out this “New Rave” label into a true musical trend would do well to examine Foreign Islands closely.

Early single “Fine Dining With the Future” makes a strong case for paying attention to Foreign Islands. A song doesn’t have to be complicated to be heaps of fun, and the simple, chugging guitar rhythms and off-beat clapped rhythm here are particularly effective. The slower tempo highlights the strong rock underpinning of this whole genre, but what really makes the track stand out is its musical complexity—a subtle horn counter-melody, a twist of the formula. Singer Mark Ryan’s voice has just the right combination of sleaze , in the way he slides off the end of spoken phrases,  and eccentricity—when he rolls the ‘r’ at the beginning of a word.

You don’t need to think too hard about this music—just get down. After all of this decade’s Knifes and Raptures and LCD Soundsystems, do you really still need to be tricked into thinking it’s rock? “That’s How This Goes Down” pays a bigger debt to dance music than most bands in this genre, with a sleazy electro musical palette, hedonistic vocal distortion, and the unexpected injection of a sexy clip of French, to boot. Admit it, you’re not listening to Foreign Islands for the depth of their insight. When Ryan shouts, “Say goodbye to resentment / fall out of contentment / hold onto nothing / we’re all waiting for something / I’ll wait for something to believe,” in the chorus of “Hold Onto Nothing”, it’s not the throw-it-away sentiment that sticks, it’s the excellent electro stomp.

A few songs, though—“No Holiday” and “Ghost Story” in particular—give the listener reason to pause. The first is a more blatant smashing-together of the melodic leanings that make Foreign Islands’ music immediately appealing with a less tight, more directionless verse. We could use a little more cohesion. That same problem doesn’t plague “Ghost Story”, which has its form down pat—just the derivative bassline that drives the song is a little too prominent, the shouted vocals a little too Presets, the instrumental mix a little too Rapture.

At least there’s no dearth of ideas here, making these songs particularly fertile fodder for remixing: a seemingly obligatory inclusion on any dance-rock EP these days. Which is what we get at EP’s end. We get a couple of them: Filthy Duke’s remix of “We Know You Know It” and Boys Noize’s remix of “Fine Dining with the Future”. Both stick mainly to electro middle ground, retooling the familiar elements of these songs into unremarkable club tracks.
So after all this, is Foreign Islands worth getting excited about? Yeah, for sure. What they do, they do with great confidence and exuberance—an exuberance that seems somehow more genuine, more authentically hedonistic, than some of Klaxon’s recent studio work. Even hearing the band on record, you can imagine a Foreign Islands show: sweat, loss of bodily control and, of course, good times.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/foreign-islands-restart-now/