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SPIN Essentials

Future Islands Channel Synth-Pop Greats, William Shatner on ‘Singles’

SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: March 25, 2014
Label: 4AD

Polling my music-expert friends (professional and otherwise) to try and help this ’90s baby identify the correct analogy for Future Islands frontman Samuel T. Herring’s expressive, as-yet-un-indie-fied delivery led to YouTube searches for Simple Minds, Klaus Nomi, Phil Collins, Billy McKenzie of the Associates and “Roland Gift doing Neil Diamond karaoke.” But 1) all of them lack Herring’s growl and 2) I found it distracting. For me, a clearer parallel would be the Hives gearing up to release Tyrannosaurus Hives, their underappreciated sophomore album. Back then, they proudly told the press of their obsession to play the hyperactive music as robotic and machine-like as possible, juxtaposed with Howlin Pelle Almqvist pushing his vocals to truly discomforting territory — howls and screeches and barn-owl noises previously unheard on a punk record with melodies. So it goes with Herring, whose outstanding stage abilities careen wildly over his bandmates’ mechanical hum.

Herring’s an actor whose ability to improvise — just watch him freestyle rap — allows him to transform his surroundings. We’ve heard a billion permutations of the tuneful minimalism of Singles’ opener “Seasons (Waiting on You),” but it takes a real showman to free such a song from its nostalgic limitations. Get over Herring’s Shatner-like earnestness like you did with Destroyer’s Kenny G moves on Kaputt and you’ll unlock the furrowed brows, baggy eyes and bulging veins beneath the metronomic perfection. Which isn’t to say there aren’t tracks here whose synthetic infallibility isn’t the best part: “Spirit” cycles through the Junior Boys aural playbook in an efficient 4:22, and “Fall From Grace” is a menacing power ballad whose hooks are computerized whistles. Herring even screams on it. As he downpours about how “we slowly fade away,” we’re reassured that the end is just an on-off power switch away.