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)
Just as my parents’ generation have seen all of the dread of their own mortality made flesh in the still-shamelessly-strutting-it form of Mick Jagger, my generation has grown old enough to see its own It-Boys turn into men with wrinkles and midlife crises. Conor Oberst, for example, is pushing 40. The former teen prodigy used to exemplify the tortured feels of hyper-sensitive and hyper-articulate but poorly socialized post-adolescents. He had a quavering voice that seemed always on the verge of tears and the dreamy good looks of a baby owl. He got called “The New Dylan” a lot. Now he’s facing the challenge of somehow staying relevant now that his constituents are divorced, 15 pounds overweight, struggling to make their car payments and long ago given up on all their dreams. Fortunately, adulthood offers its own unique sources of angst, though tempered – if you’re lucky enough to actually have matured – by some wisdom and perspective. Oberst is in a position to segue into a really great second phase in his career, and he’s smart enough to see that. His last couple of albums have been surprisingly outstanding; clearly he still has a lot to write about, as a mature person, and I expect him to continue to lean into it. Maybe his best is still coming up, maybe he’ll find increasing inspiration from the perspective of age. Growing older is inherently embarrassing for a pop figure – besides seeing your own failings in the harsh camera glare, you’re also representing the failings of your audience. You have a choice though; you can put on your Peter Pan skinny pants and stubbornly carry on being exactly the same, or you can allow your ageing and decline to become part of your work. I expect Oberst to follow the leads of Leonard Cohen and Paul Simon, who discovered their best creative years well past the hump of middle age and just really owned the hell out of being withered old men.
Sometimes I wonder if my love life would be a bigger success if I made a bigger effort to be a toxic bitch. People like that, right? Men would flock to me? It’s a trope that mentally unstable people are more desirable, and romance isn’t really worth it unless it’s full of explosive drama and mutual bad behaviour. Most of us learn otherwise pretty quickly in life, but the trope shows no sign of losing its appeal. It’s the Manic Pixie Dream Girl’s rehab-failing older sister. The Toxic Bitch may smash your windshield and ruin your life, but nobody ever made you feel more alive. The male equivalent is the guy who breaks your nose on Valentine’s Day then takes you to brunch the next morning, and he is only marginally less easy to glamorize. Toxic people are shit and you should run away from them when you see them coming, but don’t you secretly want to be that out of control?
Hey, did you know that The Joy Formidable released an album in 2016? No, how could you? Unless you actively follow their moves on social media, it’s hard to keep track of what indie bands are up to. The only mainstream music related publication still in print is Rolling Stone, and if anything, their focus has narrowed of late. I’ve heard that in the UK, there’s still a number of music magazines that actually cover new music and rising artists and the indie scene, but I don’t have access to those and I’m guessing you don’t either. My point is, there are many exciting events that occur without much fanfare from whatever you call the media, so you really have to do your own research. I would really love to see Ritzy Bryan get the rock star treatment; she could be on the cover of Rolling Stone, mostly naked in a lewd pose photographed by a known serial rapist. Ok, no, you know what, just keep doing what you’re doing Ritzy, you don’t need that shit. Indie artists can go on being indie artists and I think you’ll find it worthwhile to do the footwork, so to speak, of keeping up with them yourself.
If I remember correctly, a former colleague recommended Nico Vega to me, you’ll really love this band he said, and I ignored the suggestion because that person was an absolute fuckboy. That was a couple of years ago. Then I discovered Aja Volkman through a collaboration with some DJ, and wow, she has amazing lungs. I hate it when fuckboys are right, but fuckboy was right. So I’m passing it on to you. Here’s a great band that you’ve probably never heard of. Unfortunately, they’re broken up now, but they did release two albums. So, check it out.
As promised, I’ve made an effort to learn more about the Arctic Monkeys. Since some of you like them so much. And I have to admit that I’ve come to regret that time I didn’t stick around to see them play at ACL. I mean, I’m sure that whomever I did end up seeing that day was much better, but I was right there and if I’d stayed I probably would have been converted right then and there, instead of several years later. Anyway, they’re a rock band, in the unpretentious classic sense of writing songs on guitar, and this is a rock song. The title is a either a millennial colloquialism or a Prince homage.
I didn’t love Jake Bugg’s third album as much the first two, and apparently a lot of critics agreed with me. He tried to go in some new directions that really didn’t work. Not everybody is meant to rove all over the map, so to speak. At the risk of becoming that guy who just plows the same rut over and over, Bugg is best sticking at what he’s good at. Which is being a plaintive teen idol for girls who really regret that they missed out on 1962. I really regret that I missed out on 1962, and I love jailbaity young men with feelings, so I’m totally the target market here, and I find songs like this one irresistible. There may be an element of affectation in Bugg’s nostalgic aesthetic, and it would be insufferable without substance, but luckily the music is more than strong enough to balance it out. An artist this talented can allow himself all manner of affectation; in fact, the ability to carry an affectation and pull it off is what makes an artist interesting on top of just talented.