Better than: Nursing your woes while crying in your beer. Having someone spill theirs on you while dancing in place takes way less effort
I'd been told that Baltimore synth-pop berserkers Future Islands are “great live.” I sometimes wonder if they enjoy hearing that any more than any of us enjoy being told we've got “character” or a “good personality.”
Because the implication is that the live spectacle is compensatory for albums that have some sort of major flaw. It's tough to say: their first record wasn't that good in most aspects, and 2010's In Evening Air is fiercely beloved in some corners, but always struck me as “missing something” or “on the verge.” If only they could balance out their spasms with hooks, their freak-outs with time-outs.
But while this year's On The Water appears to be their long-due breakthrough that fully explores all of their affective and visceral strengths, it's not like it does a better job of capturing their frenetic energy. As a matter of fact, it's their softest by a large margin. But perhaps the duality it explores between wanting to hang your head and howl at the moon is what ultimately makes it their most diverse and rewarding listen.
And yes, people are noticing. About a year after an eardrum-splitting performance at a memorably crowded and sweaty Smell, the trio put on a scene-stealing set at FYF Fest and ticket demand eventually drove last night's show from the Echo to the more spacious Echoplex.
But yeah, if you must know – Future Islands are fucking great live. It's not so much that a professional studio robs any of their songs of their emotional gravity or buries them in production gloss. It's just that being able to put a face – a maniacally grinning, operatically mugging one, at that – to these outpourings makes these loud but lonely songs feel like communal exorcisms.
Chalk it up to the inimitable stage presence of Samuel Herring, whose voice embodies a long lineage of “pretty on the inside” types – Man Man's Honus Honus, Tom Waits, even Meat Loaf – ratcheted up to a theatricality that feels Shakespearean above all else.
Those vox are a strange dichotomy indeed, howling and preening, alternately primally amateur and startlingly professional. Likewise, he looks like no other frontman in the indie world. Depending on the angle you catch him at, there's a resemblance to either Roland Gift of Fine Young Cannibals, Joaquin Phoenix or just any dude at your office who's clearly got the upper hand and higher salary whenever you “need to talk.”
His hilariously out of touch dress code – a black long-sleeve T-shirt tucked into a pair of Dockers, tied together with a chunky, nondescript brown belt that always seems to be on sale for $15 at Ross – is pretty much responsible for the last of those descriptors. But mind you, this isn't the kind of cynically exhibitionist, “check out this crazy dude in khakis!” sort of thing a guy like John Maus does to add layers of “meaning.” Rather, whether prowling the stage, windmilling like Pete Townsend without a guitar, or holding a microphone out to the crowd, Herring physically embodies the antsy protagonists of his songs which always seem to be searching for outside approval they never fully attain.
Truth be told, Future Islands live and die by Herring's neediness, since for all of programmer Gerrit Welmers and bassist William Cashion's crucial contributions, they stand entirely still throughout the entire performance. Which isn't so much of an issue, since it's abundantly clear that a large portion of this crowd was here to shout these lyrics back at Herring. He cries “Do you believe in love? Hold your tongue!” during “Before The Bridge,” but it's clear Herring is having a laugh at himself.
Herring made it a point to tell you what song his band was about to play (likely so Welmers can load up the next set of loops) and what it's about. The regal, anthemic “Give Us The Wind” is essentially a song about being in Future Islands and “doing whatever the fuck you want” without judgment; the steady, Yo La Tengo-ish alt-contemporary ballad “Where I Found You” was dedicated to someone Herring “lost, but not totally”; “An Apology” is “the hardest thing to say.”
He gave no explanation for “Tin Man,” but his incessant self-abuse (slapping and contorting his face with his free hand) filled in the blanks. And just about everything else is about a breakup, and perhaps accordingly it seemed like the vast majority of the people who showed up early to get as close to the stage as possible spent the set either making out with their significant other or trying to start a mosh pit by their lonesome.
Personal bias: Future Islands' Twitter handle reads “too noisy for New Wave, too pussy for punk,” and I'll totally throw in “too emo for indie” for good measure.
The crowd: I suppose the prevalence of fat dudes with mustaches, oversized tank tops and day-glo mesh hats is supposed to make these Baltimore natives feel like Wham City is still a thing?
Random notebook dump: “Give Us The Wind” bears more than a passing resemblance to Spinal Tap's “The Majesty Of Rock,” right? And Future Islands would take that as a compliment, right?
The Great Fire
Inch Of Dust
Before The Bridge
Tomorrow (new song)
Give Us The Wind
Where I Found You
Close To None
Walking Through That Door
The Happiness Of Being Twice