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Future Islands – Singles

It’s purely coincidental that Future Islands‘ new album Singles is released on 4AD in the same week I’ve started reading Martin Aston‘s Facing The Wrong Way: The Story of 4AD, but I can’t help reflect upon how ‘success’ is judged in independent music. With music sales unable to sustain a living for the vast majority of bands, relentless touring seems to be the only way to get by. With their move from Thrill Jockey to 4AD, everything written about Future Islands is coloured by the suggestion that after years of slogging away in the margins, they’re moving into the mainstream to gorge on their just desserts, thanks in part to their eye-popping, heart-rending performance of ‘Seasons (Waiting On You)’ on Late Show with David Letterman. But what will they sacrifice in the process?

The title of Singles is telling, the band confident that each song stands on its own as a potential single. The overall sound is certainly radio-friendly, with punchy production from Chris Coady (Beach House, TV on the Radio, Gang Gang Dance). The post-punk basslines are propulsive, the synth tones almost wincingly bright, and frontman Sam Herring purrs like a pussycat. Yet, while each song has been individually polished to within an inch of its life, the songs that truly shine are those that deviate most markedly from the upbeat, synth-soaked sound so de rigueur in alternative pop.

‘Seasons’ aside, the first half is a tough sell to these ears. The tempos are sprightly, the basslines basic, the synths cloyingly glossy. I can get behind ‘Spirit’s locked disco groove, Kraftwerk-esque arpeggios and surge of fuzz bass in the chorus, but the asinine melody during the verses leaves me cold. Plus, I find it hard to believe they set that stupid trumpet-synth tone and decided, ‘Yep, that sounds perfect!’ The lead line on ‘Sun In The Morning’ is similarly irritating, the chorus is one big saccharine yawn, and the line “She gives me daily soul” just doesn’t scan. The less said about ‘Doves’ the better.

It’s only when ‘Back In The Grass’ rolls around that the album begins to dial back the cheese and claw back some credibility. The track segues into the shimmering Beach House-esque chug of ‘A Song For Our Grandfathers’, followed by the beautiful ‘Light House’, with its prominent guitar lines. Singles closes with two of its finest tracks, ‘Fall From Grace’, on which Herring finally unleashes the throaty roar previewed on Letterman, and the gorgeous ‘A Dream Of You & Me’.

Going backwards through their discography, it’s clear that in polishing up their sound for a wider audience, Future Islands have lost some of their atmosphere and mystique. While the pay-off comes in the form of masterful pop songs like ‘Seasons’ and ‘A Dream Of You & Me’, there are some really clunky aesthetic choices here that suggest they haven’t quite reconciled their aspirations to reach a wider audience with the intricacies of their sound. There’s still plenty to enjoy about their music – and no doubt this album will reach many pairs of appreciative ears – but Singles simply isn’t the stellar outing I was hoping for.

~Singles is released March 24th 2014 on 4AD.~

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