Audio Reviews
On the Water
by Future Islands
Thrill Jockey (2011)
On the Water
10 / 10
Do you believe in love? That question, posed by vocalist Sam Herring, is the crux upon which Future Island’s ambitious new album rotates. A new exploration of the terrain the trio have claimed artfully for so long, On the Water goes big, the results monumental.

Having hit the Baltimore music and arts underground five years ago with much gusto, blowing back into town with the Wham City touring gang and quickly becoming a welcome addition to the scene, the group has spent much hard time since on the road building up their fan base. The group is now recognized as the premier purveyors of a contemporary take on New Wave and Post-Punk that is both true to the traditions of both forms yet utterly their own.

To see Future Islands live is to be enraptured, caught up in the moment, bopping around in manic elation before swaying knowingly to songs about heartbreak. It is lighting in a bottle captured, and has made the band’s reputation as a guaranteed good time live.

Keyboardist Gerrit Welmers is a sound sculptor, his distinctive tone palette being bent, shaped and twisted into various audio atmospheres, always tempered by just the right drum machine patterns. He is a thoughtful scientist, a genius of both warm and icy tones.

Bassist William Cashion provides a counterpoint to these sound worlds, sometimes anchoring the affair to the earth, at other times taking the melodic and rhythmic lead, an essential musical component of the bands' aural landscape.

Vocalist Sam Herring pens songs of great emotional complexity and fragility, chronicling the map of the human heart as only he can. Herring is always ready to go once more into the breach, taking his voice from a whisper to a scream as the song requires.

On the Water is an album that takes the listener on an emotional journey, down into the darkness and then back up again into the light. Nature is a big component of the record both lyrically and aurally, ambient ocean sounds and field recordings weaved in throughout, wrapping the listener up in an aural womb. Each member of the group keeps the larger themes and imagery in mind, working in harmony while still each bringing something distinct to the proceedings. Let’s take a tour of their collective effort, shall we?

On the opening track, album namesake “On the Water”, Cashion’s bass line is a meandering post-punk skeleton, Welmers keeping things at a chord organ wheeze while Sam engages in an agonizing postmortem of a lost relationship. The song builds up and then ends triumphantly, a distorted bass line soaring above the rest, the whole affair riding out on that “dum duh duh ch” drum pattern we know so well from Wall of Sound-era pop songs.

“Before the Bridge” is a complete musical movement unto itself, a moody brooding slow burner at first, warm waves of synth building up as a break-up and breakdown is detailed, items exchanged as relationship dreams bite the dust. Suddenly, with a Latin rhythm, the song breaks out to build upward towards a call and response bridge.

“The Great Fire”, featuring Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner on guest vocals, is worthy of big budget video treatment. Listening to Herring’s voice intertwine with Jenn’s is an exquisite experience, the windswept vistas of emotional desolation the song’s terrain as two of Baltimore’s best voices give it their all.

A quick instrumental break, a brilliant little bit of bass and guitar arrangement called “Open”, gives us a moment to gather ourselves before the next journey.

“Where I Found You” builds up off a marimba pulse as Herring delivers what is perhaps the most devastatingly precise lament for a lost love ever committed to record. It is here that Sam’s usual “go-for-broke” vocal performance is turned down a notch, almost spoken word in delivery, to devastating effect. This is the record’s quietest moment, the saddest song in a cycle of sad songs.

We change course with the triumphant “Give Us the Wind”, the various sonic elements building and coalescing like cumulus clouds on the horizon before crashing down all around Herring’s rallying cry. Wilmer’s album-long flirtation with borderline-dissonant tones pays off handsomely as the clouds part and the winds blow. Things from here begin to look up.

The gorgeous multi-tiered ambient piece at the beginning of “Close to None” is a sound experience unto itself, the song gradually getting going with all the bells and whistles as it emerges from a state of bliss, riding on the wave of another Welmers hook.

“Balance” turns out to be the most straight ahead pop song on the album, the one to bop around to. It fits in with the mood of the rest of the album but still stands out by being a bit more compact, a bit brighter, the lyrical themes shifting to healing and redemption.

“Tybee Island” explores sonic possibilities, the band’s native North Carolina ocean sound swirl forming the background for a track that is both beautiful and haunting as it drifts in and out of focus, following the pull of the tide.

“Grease” is an album closer with the grand scope of the record in mind, evoking its stately pomp in slow motion, Sam holding forth on the agony and ecstasy of the life of a hard-touring musician. When the stings kick in at the end, you can almost see the sea of lighters and cell phones held aloft, the world an endless string of gigs both home and abroad.

On the Water is an album to listen to and enjoy repeatedly, as each time around something new is revealed to the listener. This is a statement of purpose from a band at the apex of the first stage of their journey, all stops pulled, going full speed. It is a marvel to take in how far they have come and how far they have yet to go.
Posted by: Tim Kabara

Audio Reviews (October 10th, 2011)