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On the Water

Future Islands: On the Water

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reviewed by
Tanya El Kashef
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Future Islands: On the Water

Sounding much like a friendly monster, Samuel
T. Herring of Future Islands writes lyrics with his heart on his sleeve. The
Baltimore-based band’s 2010 album In
Evening Air
came alive with the endearing passion with which his simplistic
lyrics were delivered; the album captured listeners with the inner turmoil and
desperate existence of a failed romance. The band’s 2011 release On the Water – while more relaxed and freer
of a turbulent reality – is equally human.

The band – made up of vocalist Herring,
keyboard/programmer Gerrit Welmers and bass/guitarist William Cashion –
recorded On the Water by the
Pasquotank River in Elizabeth City,
North Carolina; and so much of the album’s overall sound is laced with the
imagery and serenity of water. The opening track begins with chime-like and
breezy recordings taken from under a pier. Then, atop a creeping, soft beat, Herring’s
signature gruff emerges in relaxed vocals. ‘I waited for an answer/ You turned
before me leaving’ is a sympathetic reminder that, although they come with more
acceptance, Herring’s tales continue to be of heartbreak and solitude.

Instilled with an undeniable techno beat,
‘Before the Bridge’ is slightly deterring at first; but eventually, with Herring’s
ethereal sincerity and an overall 80s-infused bounce, their world of humbled
melancholia prevails. In contrast to In
Evening Air, this album breathes easier. ‘The Great Fire’, a duet with Jenn
Wasner of Wye Oak sounds liberated, cooled after a much smouldering anguish.

The album continues to be considerably
understated up until ‘Closer to None’, where it picks up momentum. Imagining
this album on a curve, ‘Balance’ is a definite peak, being by far the best
track on the album, it has the perfect balance – no pun intended – between the danceability
of the music and the seriousness of Herring’s composition. It’s both contagious
and addictive, and very much in the spirit of new wave/80s legends New Order,
The Cure and Cocteau Twins.

With this album, Welmers and Cashion are by far
more present and better defined; ‘Grease’ and ‘Give Us The Wind’ are more
about the thumping beat, wispy synths and low lurching riffs than
Herring’s dramatic performance.

However, this album can be quite sleepy at times; ‘Tybee Island’ is just a mush of
floating (although studio enhanced) sounds of the water and lullaby-ish singing
without actual words; there are even moments where the album comes to a
complete quiet. Nonetheless, with all these layers of tranquillity On the Water is not without its own
tragedy, and the line ‘I loved you and I still do’ is indicative of that.

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