Future Islands, Undressed

Future Islands, Undressed

Listening to Future Islands’ Undressed EP, I feel like I’ve inadvertently walked in on a weird scene in a dimly-lit, avant-garde coffee bar somewhere in the dingy, half-arty part of a city that’s not this one but is perhaps cooler, or more pretentious, or (probably) both.

Up on the ramshackle stage, there’s a band of dead-serious not-quite-kids dressed in somber suits and ties, hardcore ragers partway grown up, the tattoos not quite hidden by the sleeves of their shirts. They’re playing gently, reverently, but with intense concentration, coaxing the music out of the strings and keys. The music is solemn and melancholy, almost orchestral, but still definitely “urban”-sounding, the way that all those Chicago post-rock bands sound like that city.

And after a minute or two, a white-haired guy who looks weirdly like somebody’s old English professor from a couple of decades ago gets up from the bar and meanders his way to the stage. Without any kind of preamble, he puts a set of spectacles on his nose, pulls a leather-bound book out of his pocket, flicks it open to a page, and begins to croon these deep, heartfelt lyrics in a gravelly, British-accented voice.

He sounds like a soused-yet-sincere Ian Holm, or maybe an amped-up version of Orson Welles doing Falstaff, but at the same time, he delivers about half the songs in this faux-soul growl that’s less Shakespeare and more Harry Belafonte. He roars and bellows, then drops it to a half-broken whimper, the patches on his sleeves showing in the single spotlight, never once looking at the audience; he’s sing-talking to somebody only he can see.

And then, when the last song ends, he puts away the book and steps back out of the light, and that’s it. While the band packs its gear, he heads back to the bar, sits back down in the exact same spot, and resumes his drink like nothing ever happened. The coffee bar patrons chat and type on their laptops and sip their lattés, and that’s it.

On one level, Undressed sound like music made on a dare: “Dude, I totally dare you to get up on the mic and croon like you’re Patrick Stewart in King Lear! That’d be freaking hysterical!” For all its utter, what-the-fuck weirdness, however, Future Islands are remarkably addictive — as I type this, I’ve listened to Undressed four times straight through, and it’s still not getting old.

And yeah, it’s pretty much vocalist Samuel T. Herring that makes it bizarre; his inexplicably-accented vocals swing between professorial pomp and weightiness and the streetwise roughness of a more bookish Cee-Lo Green (see “Long Flight”). Without him, the band would be decent but not amazing, like a more indie-rock-leaning Talkdemonic with fewer strings. The music serves as a deliberate, low-key bed over which Herring can spiral and swoop — it’s quiet and fragile, to be sure, with subtle keys and a bass mostly driving things, but it still feels purposeful, like it’s headed somewhere.

The most affecting track on here, for my money, is the last, “Little Dreamer” — the band steps along at a waltz-like pace, while Herring grabs hold of the scenery-chewing delivery of, say, James Earl Jones and proceeds to plead and testify. The impassioned vocals, believe it or not, somehow make it work, letting the simple, delicately-arranged instruments work their magic while Herring’s strange alter-ego weeps in the limelight.

[Future Islands are playing 11/10/10 at Fitzgerald’s, along with Lonnie Walker & Wicked Poseur.]
(Thrill Jockey Records -- P.O. Box 08038, Chicago, IL. 60608; http://www.thrilljockey.com/; Future Islands -- http://www.myspace.com/futureislands)
BUY ME: Amazon

Review by . Review posted Thursday, November 11th, 2010. Filed under Features, Reviews.

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