(Thrill Jockey; 2010)
By Conrad Amenta | 24 January 2011
Future Islands’ In Evening Air was one of the best albums of 2010, comprised of elegant equations that crystallize raw depictions of pop heartbreak. For all its aesthetic brevity and Sam Herring’s barroom growl, one can tell that at the core of the band’s appeal lies their adherence to tried-and-true songwriting mores. The results were fresh, but in their approach one hears committed to the history of pop music another faithful article.
At its best, Undressed—an appropriately titled EP of Future Islands songs rendered synth-less and stripped down—simply emphasizes the bedrock basis of the band’s value to indie music. The songs are as good as ever, but accentuating them with piano, drums, and cello while stripping out the volume and dynamism allows the listener to turn these songs over and view them from another angle. They’re still perfectly centered—this is no experimental departure—but without that driving bass and screaming keys, the nuances in Herring’s voice are given space to come forward.
Admittedly, some of these songs lend themselves to reinterpretation better than others. “In the Fall” is as gorgeous as ever, and Herring’s straightforward confessionals —“You’re my best friend” he says, without being cloying—are no less appealing for his toned-down vamping. “An Apology” and “Long Flight,” however, sometimes feel like they’re straining at the parameters of the exercise. In the former’s pre-chorus, the band seems like it wants to take off, and Herring’s yelp from the In Evening Air version springs immediately to mind. That voice is still remarkable, but the desire to hear him stretch it is there. In that light, Undressed takes on a different kind of heartbreak: the particular ache of an acute absence.
“Little Dreamer,” from Wave Like Home (2008), is the best example of where this kind of interpretation can go. The minimalist approach is taken to a logical extreme—for a long stretch, drums are Herring’s sole accompaniment—and what it evokes, in those first moments, is Antony and the Johnsons. They’re operating in entirely different contexts, but that kind of unadorned performance not only plays up the band’s obvious strengths, it’s also an especially revealing moment for a band who’ve built their appeal around romantic admission.