Future Islands are a particularly odd pop proposition. With their grumbling keyboards and galloping drums, wind-in-your-hair tunes and triumphant chord sequences, they sounds almost like some great lost 80′s pop band, like they could maybe be included in the prom scene in a John Hughes movie.
But something isn’t right. Like the stray ear in Blue Velvet, there’s a spanner in the works. There’s a certain awkwardness in how the sounds scrape together. The keyboards have an abrasive edge that tips Future Islands away from Depeche Mode and towards Xiu Xiu. Singer Samuel T. Herring’s vocals come with a trans-Atlantic accent that seems to be influenced by both Ian Curtis and Vegas-era Elvis. At times genuinely unhinged, he’s reminiscent of a drunken mid-breakdown Kurt Wagner doing karaoke as some alternate-reality synth-pop Meatloaf, kicking drinks from the tables as people look on aghast.
When the emotion spills over into theatrical mania and when distortion overwhelms the synthetic sound of the keyboards; this is when Future Islands blossom. They take the syrupy sentimentality of pop love songs and run riot with it. The Hollywood pink-sunset endings are blighted with belching black smoke as the whole thing tumbles off the rails like a suicidal teen movie hero Thelma-and-Louise-ing off the Golden Gate bridge.
It comes as no surprise that they met in art school. There’s a conceptual edge to what Future Islands do – it’s just that step too far to be entirely earnest. But J Gerrit Whelmers’ carefully balanced music carries the weight of the desperation and emotion in the vocals. The emotional exhibitionism inherent in Future Islands is a heartfelt cabaret that is more affecting than affected, and plumbs unexpected depths as a result.