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Future Islands, 'Singles' (4AD)( Beth Hoeckel / 4AD / Handout / March 19, 2014 )
RATING: **** out of 4
It takes a lot to impress David Letterman. For more than 30 years, late-night TV's charming curmudgeon has seen it all, from presidents to pop-culture figures.
But you'd be hard-pressed to find a more enthusiastic response from the 66-year-old in recent years than his reaction on March 3, the night Baltimore's Future Islands made its network TV debut.
The trio performed "Seasons (Waiting on You)," the first song on the new album "Singles (out Tuesday on 4AD). With approachable synth-wave-meets-pop sensibilities and frontman Sam Herring's disarmingly earnest performance, Future Islands captivated the audience, and Letterman in particular. It didn't hurt that the singer's dance moves, a kind of sliding two-step matched with exaggerated head-bopping, were instantly meme-worthy.
"Oh buddy, come on!" Letterman exclaimed as he walked to greet Herring, hand extended. "I'll take all of that you got! Future Islands! That was wonderful." Later that week, he was still referring to the performance in his monologue.
Two weeks later, Future Islands emerged as one of the most talked-about acts at Texas' South by Southwest festival, and the palpable momentum led to an inescapable conclusion: The stars are finally aligning for one of Baltimore's most rewarding and hardworking bands, and the timing could not be more perfect.
"Singles" is Future Islands' best work to date and a near-perfect representation of the band's growing confidence and the expansion of its enriching sound. The 10-track album widens the act's established base of propulsive backdrops matched with Herring's poetic explorations of love ("Sun in the Morning"), disconnection ("Back in the Tall Grass") and the immediate world around him ("A Dream of You and Me").
Herring is provided backdrops rich with texture, thanks to the increasingly varied atmospheric work of keyboardist/programmer Gerrit Welmers and the vital bass lines by William Cashion. Their dynamics are so familiar with Herring's at this point that each player knows when to be forceful (the bright, nimble "Doves" could work for say, Paramore) and when to play the background (such as on the somberly reflective "A Song for Our Grandfathers").
Still, the group is at its best with Herring at his most forlorn. On "Seasons," Herring proves that no one in the indie-rock sphere can convey the sincerity and urgency necessary to sell a line such as, "When people change, they gain a peace, but they lose one, too." There is nothing frivolous about anything Herring does, and that is what makes him stand out time and time again.
Often, great albums made at this point in an act's career ("Singles" is the group's fourth, and the follow-up to 2011's "On the Water") are not left-turn departures but are instead made with a deepened understanding and trust in what it already does well. "Singles" proves to be no exception.
There is something almost sexy about falling in love with a band's debut album -- the freshness makes it so easy. But Future Islands has only improved with each release, and "Singles" is a case of a band in full control of its strengths. It brought beautiful, well-written songs to the table and simply found its rhythm in tandem with new producer Chris Coady (Beach House, Grizzly Bear). The results are gorgeous, melancholy and ultimately affirming, in ways only fully realized, precisely executed albums can be.
-- Wesley Case