In Praise Of The Schlub Frontman: Future Islands And The Hold Steady

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There is no greater cultural delight on this earth than the sight, and sound, of David Letterman actually enjoying one of his musical guests. His curiosity piqued, his force field of indifference and disdain penetrated. It still happens. He likes Darlene Love; he likes drummers. And earlier this month, he fell hard for Baltimore synth-pop dudes Future Islands. Pretty sure we all did.

Get a load of this guy. His name is Samuel T. Herring (of course), and he is absolutely mesmerizing. The power-schlub attire: black T-shirt smartly belted into black dress slacks, somehow recasting his hint of a gut and encroaching male-pattern baldness as assets, as seductive weapons. The knee-buckling electric-slide dance moves, so instantly iconic Dave worked them into his monologue the following night. The feigned-nonchalance-into-fist-pump lunge Herring pulls out for the choruses. The summer-stock-theatrical crease of pained sincerity on his face as he croons, "People change / But certain people never do," pounding his chest so hard his mic picks it up. The alluringly incongruous death-metal growls.

He combines the jovial menace of the Pixies' Frank Black, the erudite yearning of Morrissey, the hammy ardor of Tom Jones. You want him to take you on a date, in a Venetian red Subaru Outback, to the Macaroni Grill. You belong together. After the song is over, Dave bounds onstage like he's been shot out of a cannon: "AW, BUDDY, C'MON!"

Future Islands' new album is called Singles, which is brash in a wry way, in keeping with the theme. (Stream it here.) It starts with the Letterman jam—"Seasons (Waiting on You)," the best Elton John song in three decades—and neither improves nor particularly falls off from there, wistful and woozy and guitar-averse, all insistent basslines and dawdling synthesizers. Herring has the crisp diction of a knighted English actor and the sneak-attack uber-goofball flair of Jack Black in High Fidelity (WWWAAAOOWW), but he wisely refuses to acknowledge that he's in on the joke, or that there's even a joke here at all, and there actually isn't: He sternly roams these ersatz-'80s vistas like Flight of the Conchords channeling David Bowie channeling King Lear.


Dude is dead serious. There is a song called "Sun in the Morning" ("She feeds me daily soul"); there is a song called "Like the Moon" ("She looks like the moon / So close and yet so far"). The death-metal growls resurface big-time on climactic ballad "Fall From Grace." These are karaoke songs for when you wish to disguise your crushing depression in a veil of pompous vocal radness so intense it makes your monocle fall off.

Interlude: The hot new thing in rock criticism is to talk trash about people who don't know what a pentatonic scale is, and then respond with a photo of your music bookshelf when criticized. (Seriously, this keeps happening. And you wonder what I'm doing here.) As a preemptive strike, here is mine:


Joining us today in the Unlikely/Awesome Frontman Hall of Fame is early inductee Craig Finn, who echoes Herring in power-schlub visual impact quite a bit, despite the fact that his band, Brooklyn-via-Minneapolis hoodrats the Hold Steady, echoes Future Islands in sonic impact not at all. We are talking straight-up meat-and-potatoes classic rock here, with beer in lieu of potatoes, the guitars swarthy and virile, the choruses practically pumping your fists for you: "We had some massive nights / WHOA-OH-A-OH." They used to have a fantastic keyboard player, the overcaffeinated and resplendently mustached Franz Nicolay, but he quit to go make solo albums that sound a great deal like Meat Loaf, which no one could have anticipated (not him, not Meat Loaf), though in retrospect it was obvious.


Thankfully, he was not the star attraction. David Lee Roth's old insult was that rock critics loved Elvis Costello because he looked like a rock critic; bespectacled and evil-cherubic, Finn's innovation was to also sound like a rock critic, his vocal style one endless sputtered-word tirade re: hard drugs, hard chicks, hard rock, hardcore, hardcore Catholicism, and various intersections thereof, name-checking Patty Smyth, Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson, Steve Perry, Neil Schon, Nina Simone, and André Cymone on the second track of the band's first album alone ("The Swish," Almost Killed Me, 2004, it's great). Your mileage may vary here: Gerard Cosloy once allowed that the band sounded like "later-period Soul Asylum fronted by Charles Nelson Reilly," which was not a compliment, and Gerard's music bookshelf is probably awesome.

Love 'em anyway, though. Their sixth album, Teeth Dreams, is also out Tuesday (stream it here), the beer-pitcher-hoisting riffs as fulsome as ever, and the grating edge of Finn's voice sanded down ever so slightly, along with his lyrical tendency to endlessly cycle through an insular cast of characters and locations and images (Holly / Ybor City / tons of crosses) in a way that made coming to this band late feel like starting The Wire halfway through season four.

Still, there's plenty of fan service on this thing: "Blood on the carpet / Mud on the mattress / Wakin' up with that American sadness." "Spinners" doesn't sound ridiculous on the radio and furthers Finn's skill at sketching out sympathetic female characters; "The Ambassador" is a rousing downer ode to yet another seedy bar ("There wasn't much diplomatic there"). We wrap up with a nearly 10-minute double-gatefold epic that could frankly use a little death-metal growling: As wind-machine-borne mega-solos go, it can't hold an iPhone lighter to "Lord, I'm Discouraged." But longtime fans had feared the diminishing returns were permanent after 2010's iffy Heaven Is Whenever, and this pulls them out of the skid.


It's also an excuse to go see Finn live. Compared with Herring, his dance moves are laughably weak—he's mostly content with bug-eyed arm-flailing—but his deathless habit of strumming his guitar maybe three times per five-minute song is endlessly hilarious. (I've dreamt for ages about a live MOMA installation called Craig Finn on Guitar, where whatever insignificant sound he's making is the only thing you hear.) What these two guys share, however inadvertently, is an overall "Man, he shouldn't be up there" / "Man, he looks great up there" bearing, the mark of misplaced confidence so absolute it is no longer at all misplaced, can charm and overpower thousands, can delight Letterman himself. These men give us hope, they give us cheer, they give us daily soul.

Photos via AP and Getty.

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