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For all that the music industry has changed in the 50 years since the Beatles hit Ed Sullivan, a well-timed TV appearance can still work wonders for an up-and-coming band. Consider a March Late Show with David Letterman performance by Future Islands. Letterman’s own atypically giddy reaction (“I’ll take all that you got!”) only confirmed the obvious: This eccentric Baltimore synth-pop crew rose to the occasion and destroyed. Frontman Samuel Herring air-punched and pounded his chest as he belted the soaring chorus to new single “Seasons”; he gazed into the crowd with a mixture of wistfulness and conviction; and during the final line, he let out a gravelly, subhuman roar. All that was missing was the proverbial mike drop.
For Letterman and other newbies, the performance must’ve seemed meteoric. But for fans of the Baltimore-via–Greenville, North Carolina, trio, it was merely further proof that this band is—or, more accurately, was—the best-kept secret in indie rock. After touring tirelessly and issuing two well-received LPs on Thrill Jockey, Herring, keyboardist Gerrit Welmers and bassist William Cashion ascend to the bigger leagues this year with Singles, their debut for the storied 4AD imprint.
Opener “Seasons” is a leadoff home run, but the album has extraordinary staying power. Danceable tracks like “Spirit” and “A Dream of You and Me” stick to the Future Islands M.O.—marrying Welmers’s lush, retro-but-not-kitsch synths to Cashion’s effortlessly stylish motifs and Herring’s theatrical entreaties—while departures such as “A Song for Our Grandfathers” decrease the bpms and turn up the pathos.
It would be impossible to bottle the onstage lightning that made Future Islands a sensation at SXSW and Coachella, but Singles is anything but a consolation prize: It’s a shoo-in for this writer’s year-end short list. (I doubt I’ll be alone.) So was it all Letterman’s doing? The exposure didn’t hurt, but this band was already well on its way.—Hank Shteamer
Follow Hank Shteamer on Twitter: @DarkForcesSwing