Album Review: Future Islands – In Evening Air (Thrill Jockey)

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MP3: Future Islands – Tin Man

This album is one of the most anticipated releases from a local artist in 2010. The anticipation is partly because, ever since their transplant here from North Carolina, Future Islands‘ rapturous live shows have caught on like wildfire, and partly because it serves as their debut on Baltimore fetishist label Thrill Jockey (who I hear may have signed yet another prominent Baltimore musician’s solo efforts). I am a bit ashamed to admit that I underestimated Future Islands. Frankly, I couldn’t have imagined they would deliver this strongly on an album. Until hearing their TJ 12″ EP and LP releases, I was convinced that Future Islands’ music was a gem that shone most brilliantly live, and lost the majority of its lustre in the studio.

Wave Like Home, put out on UK label Upset! the Rhythm, was characterized by a fair bit of mania, yet also (paradoxically) a uniformity of approach and tone. The parallels and comparisons to more prominent Wham City affiliates abounded. Synths were riding high and dominant in the mix, bass rumbled along turned to 11 (most often functioning as rhythmic propulsion), and Herring’s voice was unflinchingly raw and big. Though they surely traveled through many moods, they felt fleeting and devoid of any true weight. To my ears, their vision on that record was relatively less ambitious, aiming more to catalyze a dance party than anything else. In doing so I think that release was as close as Future Islands will get to channeling the electricity of their live shows onto a recording. However, with their closing track, they provided the best hint of future directions, delivering a standout ballad in “Little Dreamer.”

With In Evening Air, Future Islands seem to have had an epiphany. They have simultaneously fleshed out and grasped a distinct and ambitious vision of synth-laden pop, corralling it into something as seductive as their live shows (if not quite bursting with the same hysterical energy). What comes through more than ever before is their romantic core, that mysterious and soulful allure you get from Sam Herring’s vocals when frayed, at times histrionically, to their gravelly breaking point. Or from the slow, lyrical glide of William Cashion’s bass, when he actually slows down enough to give notes some space. Or the cloudy-eyed landscapes created by J Gerrit Welmers’ synths.

The wide range of Sam Herring’s vocals, from whispers to shouting melodrama, is fully utilized on this release. His distinct style has always been a hallmark of Future Islands’ sound. While he won’t be winning any awards for technicality, his vocals are phenomenally well suited for this music, and one of the most versatile drivers of mood on the album.

Compared to their previous efforts, this LP has a different approach to the mix, aiming for a smoother and more produced sound, lush and full. The rough edges that made Wave Like Home crackle have been sanded down to make for something that feels more balanced, and as a result, makes for more convincing shifts in mood that convey a genuine, almost overwhelming sense of weary romanticism.

The raw open wound of single “Tin Man” is a microcosm of the album itself: Cashion’s driving staccato bass line broken up with clarion moments of more legato melodies, Herring’s raspy and plaintive vocals belting out that confessional chorus (“I am the Tin Man”), Welmers’ synth and effects work creating an array of sounds, an almost tropical fantasy. Aside from “Tin Man,” my personal favorite track is “Long Flight.” The murky synth opening accompanied by the swiftly rumbling bass melody perfectly matches the narrator’s bewildering homecoming. You can almost imagine stumbling bleary-eyed onto the surreal scene of his love in bed with another man. The crescendoing music keeps pace as Herring works through the ordeal right up to the adrenalized catharsis at the distorted end of the track.

“An Apology” sees Welmer’s twinkling synth lines (more refined and developed in solo project Moss of Aura) dominate a track that often feels appropriately delicate. Title track “In Evening Air” delivers a dreamy instrumental interlude that is unexpected alone, but is perfectly sequenced on the album, following on the hushed closing of “An Apology.” “Vireo’s Eye” might also surprise you with the care taken in its gradually layered build.

There’s a lot to like, even love here. The album flows effortlessly as a whole, and a number of the tracks are irresistible even as stand-alones. Future Islands skirt a dangerous line of feeling too repetitious by working largely within the bounds of 4/4 using a number of fairly simple elements. But they end up wringing a surprisingly deep and diverse moods out of somewhat spartan ingredients, avoiding what might be seen as a pitfall of earlier releases. Part and parcel of the album’s high replayability, these songs just don’t grow old.

It seems that this LP is all about showcasing how far Future Islands have come. Exchanging energy for intensity, In Evening Air represents a huge maturation of their studio output, and even their entire artistic vision. While earlier releases may have felt closer to a live performance, this release feels closer to the soul of Future Islands. In an interview, Sam Herring once mused: “If we had time, we could write a great album.” We should all be thankful they finally found that time, and used it so well.

Label: Thrill Jockey

Release date: May 04 2010

Track list:

  1. Walking Through That Door
  2. Long Flight
  3. Tin Man
  4. An Apology
  5. In Evening Air
  6. Swept Inside
  7. Inch of Dust
  8. Vireo’s Eye
  9. As I Fall

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4 Responses to “Album Review: Future Islands – In Evening Air (Thrill Jockey)”

  1. brett says:

    album of the year.

  2. Nolan says:

    “…Though they surely traveled through many moods, they felt fleeting and devoid of any true weight. ”

    You know, Greg, i had the opposite thought entirely. The shear amount of composure In Evening Air offers sort of makes it seem lifeless to me.

  3. Leo says:

    Hey man, great post. Really enjoying this record. We found a live performance of a new song and put it up here:


    Check it out when you can.

  4. Craig Shay says:

    Hey Nolan, you spelled sheer incorrectly.

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