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Synth-pop band Future Islands returns with a new song cycle

Herring may sound from the outset like a slightly unhinged, pipe-smoking uncle.

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Do you believe in love? Future Islands (from left, Samuel T. Herring, Gerrit Welmers, William Cashion) - COURTESY OF MIKE VORASSI
  • Courtesy of Mike Vorassi
  • Do you believe in love? Future Islands (from left, Samuel T. Herring, Gerrit Welmers, William Cashion)

On the Water, the new full-length from Baltimore synth-pop trio Future Islands, is something of a departure from, or a progression past, the band's acclaimed 2009 release, In Evening Air. For one thing, the record lacks the breakout-single potential that the earlier album had.

"There's no ‘Tin Man' on this record," says Samuel T. Herring, the band's singer and primary poet, referring to In Evening Air's catchy, upbeat centerpiece. But at the same time, the album is more cohesive. The band's label, Thrill Jockey, refers to On the Water as a "song cycle." The songs on the album weren't written as a story, per se, explains Herring, but they represent a chapter in his life and that of the band, with themes reverberating in the same way that they might in a writer's body of work during a particular period of time. 

The closest thing to a single on On the Water might be "Beyond the Bridge," the second track (and the first to actually be released as a single, earlier this year, ahead of the full-length). It finds Herring, whose gravelly vocals seem incongruous with his soft-spoken nature and sensitive writing, at his most Morrissey-like. "Do you believe in love? Do you believe in love?/ Hold your tongue; hold your tongue," he intones again and again, over a repetitive loop held down by bassist William Cashion and synth controller Gerrit Welmers.

Fellow Baltimorean Jenn Wasner, the voice and guitar of Wye Oak, lends vocals on the record's third track, "The Great Fire." (Draping her vocals over reverby guitar and drum machine sounds brings out similarities to another Baltimore songstress, Beach House's Victoria LeGrande.) 

"Gerrit and William came to me with the music and I wrote that song, and it was originally just going to be a regular Future Islands song," Herring explains. "The more I sat down with it and thought about what the story was saying, I thought, ‘What if we brought in a female vocalist?'"

He sent the track to Wasner, whom the band knew from around town (though they'd originally met at an all-Baltimore-bands bill in Knoxville, of all places). She consented and, in fact, helped form the song. 

"She's the one who came up with the idea of intertwining the vocals in the chorus," Herring explains. "She called me, then wrote me an e-mail and said, ‘We could do this kind of as a call-and-response," and I said, ‘You're brilliant, let's do it!'"

("The Great Fire" was inspired by the Pittsburgh-born poet Jack Gilbert, Herring explains; the writer, a graduate of Peabody High, wrote a poem called "The Great Fires." "Love," goes the poem, "is one of many great fires." "I can't watch you dream," goes the song, "Beside a fire/ you made to leave.")

Wasner's vocals were recorded in Baltimore; for the bulk of the sessions, the trio was cooped up in a friend's house in coastal Elizabeth City, N.C. They lived there together during the 10-day recording marathon. 

"There was nothing else to do -- there was no Internet, there was no television or anything to take our minds away," says Herring. "We'd wake up in the morning, take the mattresses and put them against the walls for acoustics, pull out the amps and just kind of go to work. One person would make breakfast and somebody else would be working, then somebody else would cook lunch -- it was just work and food, and that's a good combination for us."

Future Islands' music has always been colored by patience: a song intro might last a few more bars than you might expect, an instrumental break might become a meditation for a bit before Herring's vocals return. (It might all seem more stark, too, because the band's music, while beautiful, is generally rather repetitive, a backdrop for Herring's poetry.) 

But On the Water takes patience to a new level: There are a few instrumental tracks that simply act as interludes, and "Tybee Island," nestled in the second half of the album, is the quietest of all, resembling the wintry whispers of The One A.M. Radio.

Herring's growl can be off-putting at first; it's an acquired taste that may sound from the outset like a slightly unhinged, pipe-smoking uncle. But it contains a warmth that makes the band something other than the Dark Wave outfit it might otherwise be. His lyrics are literary but not stilted, often dealing with love and loss in a melancholy manner; he sets scenes for the listener to inhabit.

Future Islands uses traditional instrumentation to warm its recordings as well -- violin, cello, marimbas. It changes the nature of a band that would otherwise comprise just synthetic beats, electric bass and one human voice.

"That's definitely something that we thought about," Herring says. "There's definitely that want to bring in an organic element to give a humanity to the music."

 

FUTURE ISLANDS with JAVELIN, ED SCHRADER'S MUSIC BEAT. 7 p.m. Wed., Oct. 26. Mr. Small's Theatre, 400 Lincoln Ave., Millvale. $12-14. 412-821-4447 or www.mrsmalls.com

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