These days I rarely consider the role of performance in music. Circumstances have dwindled my opportunities to see live bands effectively down to zero. I hardly ever watch music on TV, maybe hitting two or three heritage docs on BBC Four in the space of an average year. I never seek out music videos, even when they are recommended.
I realise I’m missing out on part of the experience. I used to be thrilled by live shows by bands I loved and, sometimes, bands I didn’t know. As someone who spent a reasonable chunk of his adolescence looking like a bargain bucket Morrissey, then a half-arsed Happy Monday, then an unremarkable former member of the Jesus and Mary Chain, I’m hardly unaware of the extra dimension that the look and feel of the band brings to the noise they are making, to the fans ability to identify with and inhabit their music. I’m aware that even if these things seem to have become unimportant to me, the bands I follow are still putting in just as much effort to perfect them, to add layers to their musical core. I’m just not paying attention.
Truth be told, I could’t even tell you what the majority of the artists I like these days actually look like. [Hang on, i’ll test that theory. Bear with me while I look at my records of the year post from 2013…
Well, I reckon I could pick 5 of the 11 out of a line-up. I’m surprised by that, although note that those include Nick Cave, Sam Beam and Bradford Cox, all of whom cut fairly distinctive figures].
This is not a stance or an extension of some philosophical or aesthetic approach – I don’t really do that stuff – it just seems to have happened. I just listen to the music. Nowadays I don’t even really care who’s in the band, or what they’re doing. I’ve never been big on appreciation of the craft of music. I love sounds, but rarely connect the appreciation of those sounds to an appreciation of the skill or virtuosity that may have been necessary to produce them. Come to think of it, not only don’t I know what most of the new artists I like at the moment look like, if they’re in a band I don’t even know what the individuals are called. Even worse, by and large I don’t even bother with song titles either.
Sounds stupid, huh? Maybe it is.
Anyhow. I started talking about performance…
A month or so ago, Baltimore synth-pop outfit Future Islands managed to blindside me and break through all this dead-eyed detachment and, in the space of 3 minutes, force the most focussed U-turn I can remember making in my 30 years as a music lover.
A few years ago Tom lent me a copy of ‘In Evening Air’, their debut album. He thought I might like it. I did not. I hated it. It’s rare that I take badly against a record, but I really couldn’t stand this one. I hung on for half the tracks and then had to finish my walk in silence. It was the voice, swinging wildly from David Bowie to Ella Fitzgerald, sometimes in adjacent syllables, both delivered as if in pastiche by a particularly hammy Lon Chaney. I found it utterly unbearable. I’m not one to shy away from an unusual vocalist. I would choose Mark E Smith, Captain Beefheart, Joanna Newsom and Tom Waits among my very favourites, but something about the shameless artifice of Samuel T Herring’s singing had me clawing for my headphones. It seemed so desperate, so attention seeking. I felt physical repulsed by it. They’ve been filed under ‘not for me thanks’ ever since.
And then. And then. Having picked up (somehow) on some minor internet buzz, I checked out their recent performance of ‘Seasons’ on the David Letterman show. Within about 90 seconds, it all made sense. Within 3 minutes i’d shifted my opinion 180 degrees. I understood immediately that the focal point of these wild growling pleas and distressed torch singer yelps was a frontman who was not the flamboyant dandy I had assumed and feared, but a regular Joe Shmoe battling with his burning desire to express himself through song. It’s a totally compelling performance. Passionate, unabashed, somehow discovering the embarrasing geek that we all fear we might be if given a microphone and an audience and parlaying this into something true and vulnerable and somehow quite magnificent. The hopelessly extreme dad-dancing, the moments when his eyes get the thousand yard stare and it seems he might just crumple right there in the middle of the stage, the futile half-punch crescendoes, the desperately assertive chest-beating. Even the last-ditch death-metal dredging. It all makes sense.
Here it is:
(I made the mistake afterwards of checking out ILX to see if others had been similarly affected by the thing. No, they hadn’t. Plenty of people speak up for the band and most cite Herring’s frontmanship as one of the key reasons they’ve always been fans. Others enjoyed once again being able to blankly slap down some enthusiasm, unable to understand why anyone would get excited about “another average synth pop band”. Here’s a tip for a happy life, as a minor aside: avoid internet forums if you want to retain any unfettered joy for something you think may be loveable. Unless your opinions are bulletproof then you’ll come away feeling your affection has been shot to pieces. And if they do happen to be bulletproof to the point of being immutable, what’s the point of trading them with others online?)
Nonetheless, I’ve hammered ‘Singles’ over the last four weeks or so. In many ways Future Islands are just another synth pop band, reaching back to grasp some of the faded glitterball glamour, retrofuturist electronic buzz and sparse despair of the mid 1980s and, essentially, doing a pretty good job of it.
Actually, come on. That’s selling them way short. They do a pitch perfect job, building their sound from an exquisite palette and creating deliciously economical soul pop.
It’s Samuel T Herring’s voice that lifts the record out of the ordinary but, somehow, he takes the rest of the band with him, and reflected in his flailing, wheeling performance – for a performance it is every time he opens his mouth to sing – their sound gains lustre and a spring in its step. Ultimately these are 10 fine songs, short and sharply constructed, by a band who sound every bit the Joe Shmoes giving it everything they have in an attempt to force their way out into some new territory, to create a breakthrough. We suspect they’ll never make it, and perhaps they know too, but that tension, of the ordinary trying to become extraordinary, is what makes Future Islands such a strangely intoxicating affair.
Nick listened: Otis Redding. Samuel T Herring is clearly (as far as I’m concerned) a massive, massive Otis Redding fan. And he’s lucky enough that his vocal cords are capable of showing that inspiration in a pretty impressive way. After years of cool detachment from synth bands, this emotive, performative juxtaposition is a little surprising (although not quite as surprising as when he went full-on ‘Cookie Monster’).
The album as a whole left me a little nonplussed, but that Letterman performance was off the scale good; people used to perform like that all the time. I love a bit of artifice.
Tom listened: I can see the headlines now:
‘Mitchell In “Changes His Mind” Shocker. You Turn if You Want To…He Has!’
I told you they were good all along, didn’t I?
Now that I’ve picked my jaw up from the floor (I had resigned myself to always having my enjoyment of In Evening Air tempered by the fact that Mr Mitchell and myself were on different pages of the hymn sheet), I will add that whilst it lacked the immediacy of Future Islands’ second album I sensed, on the basis of one play, that Singles has great depth and possibly greater staying power than In Evening Air. The listen left me very tempted but, fortunately for me, I am very tempted by a lot of records at the moment! It is, however, firmly on the list.