Remember the name Samuel T. Herring. He may not look like much, but with his group Future Islands, he’s making pop music rapturous again. The phrase “80’s-style synthpop” may be a worn and tired calling card at this point, and “80’s-style synthpop meets gospel” may not sound much better, but bear with me. Future Islands is the best – and only -synthgospel group in the world; they will make you wish synthgospel was an actual thing instead of a portmanteau that I just made up. Seriously, though, this guy has the most amazing voice. He looks like Kevin Spacey’s less-traditionally-handsome hick cousin, but he sings like an angel. An angel whose voice breaks on the high notes because he smokes a pack a day and otherwise lives a hard lifestyle. In fact, Herring’s distinctive vocal crackle is a result of a medical condition called Reinke’s edema, in which the vocal cords fill up with fluid. He’s one of those rare performers who actually became a better singer as a result of smoking and other ‘chronic misuses’ of the vocal chords. I didn’t initially make the comparison, but I’m struck by it; if Future Islands sounds like any specific thing, it’s Marianne Faithfull’s Broken English. It’s elevating, propulsive synth music turned to intensely emotional ends, a weird chimera of sparkle and darkness.
(photo by John Hatfield)
Here is a song about infanticide, and I couldn’t be more here for that. I can’t condone the practice itself, but I’m also tired of hearing about love all the time. It takes a brave creative visionary to make such a dark and twisted little song and make it their big hit single, but The Decemberists are nothing if not uniquely visionary. They know, even if you don’t, that epic narrative songs about horrific things used to be every bard and minstrel’s bread and butter. Perhaps not so much the cold-blooded sociopathy narrated here, but definitely murder and bloodshed galore. How do you think people entertained themselves before God created binge-watching? They wanted to hear about, in great detail, what terrible things could befall those less fortunate than themselves, just as we do. This isn’t a novelty song that somehow found its way onto indie radio, it’s the scion of a narrative folktale tradition as old and deep rooted as human language itself. It reflects what evils humans may do, and the cultural salves we create to comfort each other. Narratives tie us together, they warn and educate, they condemn and they comfort. The night is, in fact, dark and full of terrors.
“Revolution is internal, help yourself at any time”
If you haven’t heard, Gogol Bordello are releasing a new album. Obviously, they couldn’t be more relevant than at this moment, and I can’t wait to hear what they have to say. A lot of us right now are thinking to ourselves “I didn’t leave the fucking motherland to keep on dealing with this shit, I left it so I wouldn’t have to!” I didn’t come to America to be surrounded by mindless violent nationalism, that’s what people come to America to get away from. Unfortunately, America is basically that suspiciously hot girl on Tinder who turns out to have meth mouth and both kinds of hepatitis. So at a time when America’s international diaspora is collectively quaking with fear and rage, we really need an uplifting voice. We need to be reminded of how strong and brave and vital our immigrant communities always have been and always will be. Yes, we’re deeply disappointed right now; we thought we wouldn’t have to be dissidents anymore. But if there’s one thing Joe Make-America-Great-Again doesn’t understand, it’s that people don’t come to America because they think it’s going to be a fun daisy carnival; they come because they’re desperate to survive. Everyone who comes here does so because they’ve seen and lived through things so intolerable there’s nothing left to do but leave. In that regard, we’re way better equipped than any white-bread Americans are to deal with whatever spiteful baby-fascist bullshit comes next. It’s hard to bring people down who’ve already been down. We can be dissidents again. We can drink and party our way through whatever troubled times may come. We pass free thought around with the vodka bottle.
You turn to the Decemberists, like you turn to a midcentury novel, for reminders of the near-forgotten; words and concepts like ‘spinster’, ‘always the bridesmaid’, even ‘raincoat’. Literature and music have always been better at recording history than history itself, in the biased hands of historians, ever has. We look back at the last stretch of living memory, and its memorabilia, and witness society steadily lurching itself out of the dark ages. Here it stands, a bit battered, unsteady on its feet, still coated with the filth of history, but at we’re slouching forward, at least. Nobody says spinster anymore, but unmarried women are still treated like apples rotting under the tree. We can toss our raincoats aside and blithely not own an umbrella, because we’re children of science who don’t remember that a sniffle and a cough used to foreshadow a visit from the grim reaper. Sometimes it seems that the only reason we remember history at all is because it still clings to our language.
The golden god takes no rest in his sunset years. Well, maybe some, but not as much as he could be. Robert Plant could be content to just reel in money from the hits, but he isn’t. He’s still a formidable force, as you can see. This song sounds quite timeless; it’s not an old folk song, but it could well be. It’s clearly derived from folk music, so you can’t really say that it’s not. How derived depends, I suppose, on how much credit you want to give Plant for his lifelong habit of ‘deriving’ things from other people. Not that it matters – tradition is meant to be bent and mutated by the individual, that’s what allows it to survive.
Mmmm, talk about sorely missed. Watch Amie Duffy get her Roxie Hart on. So glamorous, so retro! Well, apparently, Duffy is not one of those people who enjoy strutting around with no pants on, and getting sucked into the fame machine just about gave her a nervous breakdown. Which is why she isn’t recording anymore. Getting the short end in comparisons to Amy Winehouse hurts an artist, and getting groomed to look like somebody’s retrograde idea of a sex kitten hurts a woman. Those were not things that Duffy wanted for herself, and I hope that someday she’ll find the motivation to come back with an image more to her own liking. Even if not, she made enough of an impact with what she did do. If I had to compare her to anyone, it would be Nancy Sinatra, who looked doe-eyed as a baby doll and sang about vindictive self-empowerment.
A powerful singer can get a lot of emotional impact just from passionate humming. Moby is not that singer, but he knows where to find them. Finding great samples and bringing in great guests is how he made himself an unlikely household name. His albums are usually filed under uninspiring titles like ‘downtempo’ and ‘chillwave’ and the all-encompassing ‘electronica’. That doesn’t really do justice to the scope of an album like 18. Those 18 songs carry more depth of emotion than most of the earnest balladeers and wanna-be emo kids out there.