On a relatively bland Later....with Jools last night, Future Islands ignited the tumbleweed with a performance that genuinely engaged and delighted. It is interesting, though hardly surprising, that it is the performance over the music that most captures my interest: I am not normally a fan of this band's kind of synth-pop, and indeed on record it does little to hold me close. But in frontman Samuel T Higgins there is a singer who has marked out his place, literally, in the performance pantheon of memorable artists - he takes a large rectangle of space on stage within the trio in which to stoop and sprawl in a four-part [I think...] core dance move which blows away the Jagger hand-clap clones whose mimicry over the years lacks this guy's distinctive routine [watch here]. That would be entertaining enough - and performance should be entertaining - but he has a vocal, live, that matches in intensity. It is an affected voice and my affected-singing-hatred-hackles initially raised, but the Jekyll and Hyde shifts between the melodic and the thrash metal growls instantly thrilled, and there is occasionally within all of this an echo of Bobby Womack's gravelly tone. It's the look too: Higgins with his ordinary shirt tucked into trousers and thinning hair doesn't convey the stereotypical frontman persona [as shallow as that is anyway] but the point is his performance is the brutal antithesis to this look, and that is hypnotic to watch. He also seems to genuinely want his audience to engage with the drama of the performance rather than simply watch it as some external and superficial feature which this review is in danger of promoting.
The problem, or not, of this is that on the band's latest release Singles the absence of that live performance places all of the expectation on the music, and for me an emphasis on the vocal. It isn't there, and the synth-pop repetitions drift into one another across the tracks, opener Seasons [Waiting On You], performed live on Jools, sounding like just another electronic pop song. When I say 'or not', that could be precisely because this is a band that should be seen live and that is the whole point. But then that would be naive to a degree in terms of attaining a financial [and therefore survivable] return on their art. The only songs really on the album that get close to the dynamism of the live vocal performance are Back in the Tall Grass and some of that thrash coarseness on Fall From Grace, though again the first is a rather generic and therefore rootless synth-pop melody. Indeed, listening to the album I find myself seeking satisfaction in a memory of the live performance mapped above the aural experience, teased here and there by a growl, but ultimately knowing I wouldn't readily return to just a listening. As I say, a double-edged sword and a cut worth sharing if you knew you could see the band live often.