A Future Islands show begins politely enough. The Baltimore-via-Greenville, N.C., trio—kind of, sort of claimed by the Triangle, too—walks onto the stage and sheepishly waves or nods to the crowd. Sam Herring provides some warm-hearted "thanks for coming" banter; mostly, he just seems out-of-his-mind excited to play a show.
They start: An ominous bouncing beat from J. Gerrit Welmers' synthesizer drops, and bassist William Cashion allows a grimy, melodic bass line. Herring, the frontman, arches his brows, hunches over and begins stalking the edges of the stage. He smacks himself in the chest and face, like it's a hardcore show.
For the next 45 minutes or so, Future Islands tear through their damaged, often tragic dance songs for the pleasure of another devoted and seemingly ever-expanding crowd. Herring's a nut in front of an audience, moving so quickly it seems that he's teleporting from one side of a usually pretty small performance space to the other. He sings in a strange cadence that's kind of British but maybe just nebulously fancy, always manic. At the right moment, his voice downshifts into a throaty, demonic wail, raising the emotional stakes of whatever bittersweet song he's performing. There's really nothing like it.
It's understandable, then, but ultimately unforgiveable to hear Future Islands dubbed "a live band." Sure, a Future Islands live show is pretty much incomparable to any band working right now. And, sure, the atmosphere is always delightfully communal. But being called a live band means that, at least for new listeners, the emphatic live reputation might precede the band's recorded output. And that's unfortunate, really; Future Islands' records are as noteworthy as the live sets.
If you've ever heard them, that is: Most of their music isn't all that easily available. The 2006 EP Little Advances was self-released and is now only available as a digital download, and their 2008 debut album, Wave Like Home, was put out by the British label Upset The Rhythm. Many of their other releases are fairly limited EPs and singles that are, indeed, easiest to access at gigs. Constant touring is how they made their name. At least the band's live reputation makes pragmatic sense.
The real shame, though, is that Future Islands remain underrated because their live shows maximize fun, while their studio recordings turn those very same songs into knotty, depressed dance music. They wrestle with disappointment and what happens when, well, shit just doesn't work out. "Nu Autobahn," from Little Advances, is a cynically propulsive song about a utopia that will never come. "Isn't it wonderful to be so alive, outside?" Herring asks, in a croaking, distant yelp that suggests a guy trying to will a feeling into fruition.
During Wave Like Home's closer, "Little Dreamer," Herring wistfully reminisces about more innocent, though no less existentially confused, times: "When I was just a child, a lonely boy/ I held onto my dreams, like they could run from me," Herring muses, backed by quiet synthesizer and bass and the ambient sounds of the outdoors. "The hopes I harbored fled, as they often do." The trio's emotional seriousness belies its reputation for ostensibly spazzy dance music.
More accurately, Future Islands are willfully out of step with the genre by its current definition. They seem intent to send dance music back to its more thoughtful—but just as visceral—origins. This is not the hedonistic dance of mainstream pop right now or the chintzy sugar rush indie stuff that exists solely for otherwise shy dorks to wild out to. No, this is a throwback sense of dance as communal catharsis, where pain's out in the open, mingling with the beats. For Future Islands, the rise-and-fall structure of dance music is inextricably tied to the up-and-down emotions of living and loving.
"Long Flight," from last year's In Evening Air, painfully recounts a return home to discover a cheating girlfriend in flagrante delicto. The song begins mockingly, with beachy keyboard sounds and a jaunty bass. With every detail, it grows darker and more intense: "I found you at home, what was our home, with another man." As the song builds, Herring repeats the sentence "you just needed a hand," adjusting it with a new emotional context each time around. Sometimes, it's an almost sympathetic attempt to understand why people cheat; at other times, it's a cleverly cruel way to remind that ex just how fucking stupid and low-stakes her indiscretion was. She only wanted to get off. "You know you hurt me so bad, just cause you just needed a hand," he writhes.
By song's end, Herring's repeating that phrase over and over again like it's the only thing keeping him sane. Finally, he spits through gritted teeth: "You know you hurt me so bad," letting out one of those goblin screams, angrily screeching heartbreak across the track. Live, the song's prefaced with stage banter: "This song's about a guy who went on tour for four months and when he got back, he realized he'd lost everything he loved. It's a true story." It's haunting. It's also, in its own way, music for fist pumping.
Like all of Future Islands' releases, In Evening Air is a bummer. Much of it jumps around like a Future Islands live show, but the songs are just as apt to simmer down or curl up and cry in the corner. It's their best record, and it's sort of a breakup album. It's also the release least like their live shows.
On "Tin Man," Herring adopts a wizened approach to heartbreak, barely maintaining his contempt for jaunty idealists. He declares, "I am the Tin Man," half-jokingly identifying with the heartless character from Oz as he tells someone younger, more hopeful and less worldly-wise: "And time goes by/ And you've got a lot to learn in your life." The album's closer, "As I Fall," consists mostly of Herring repeating, "I can't touch you anymore, I can't tell you how I feel," until the song builds to a drone of hisses and, ultimately, fades away.
These aren't feel-good lyrics, but they're also a rarefied kind of sad. In Evening Air contrasts with the communal catharsis that happens when the group's onstage, but it's a devastating listen and the best case for Future Islands—a thrilling live band, I concede—as purveyors of inescapably painful recorded music, too.