After all the hype had died down, and they’d played the last show of an extensive international tour, the members of Future Islands must have found themselves in an insecure place. In March 2014, the band’s popularity boomed all at once thanks largely to a breakthrough moment — their ecstatic performance of “Seasons (Waiting on You)” on The Late Show with David Letterman — and the subsequent internet craze that this moment spawned. By mid-2015, however, I imagine the natural uncertainties of being a band post-15 minutes of fame had set in. Would Future Islands be forever remembered as that band that played on Letterman? What could lay ahead for them now that their big moment of mainstream attention had come and gone?
Songs from the Shoebox, the first full-length from Future Islands side-project The Snails does not answer answer these questions per se, but it does tell us that vocalist Samuel T. Herring and bassist William Cashion have chosen what may be the best response to the crossroads they have come to face as musicians. They chose to go back to making the music they’ve always loved without worrying too much about how many people are still listening. Everything about Songs from the Shoebox — from the relentless snail-play in its presentation to the fact that nowhere on its bandcamp page is it definitively tied to Future Islands — suggests that the album is not meant to be Herring and Cashion’s next large-scale artistic statement. Rather, it is a chance for them to let loose and explore more experimental avenues: chiefly, those psychedelic and punk elements which have always been part of Future Islands’ sounds, but which have typically taken a back-seat to more straightforward poppiness.
As with Future Islands, Herring’s warm, quivering growl of a voice plays the dominant role for The Snails, but there are quite a few characteristics on Songs from the Shoebox that belong exclusively to the latter band. The most distinctive of these is the saxophone. Whereas the melodies of Future Islands’ songs are comprised of the brilliant synth works of non-snail Gerrit Welmers, the melodies of Snails songs are produced by a Baltimore-based collaborator whose playing meshes with indie-rock in the same felicitous manner as Colin Stetson’s. Additionally Songs from the Shoebox features certain stylistic elements, which were played a minor role in Future Islands’ music, but have been brought into a new prominence. Cashion’s percussive bass work, for example, has always sounded like that of Joy Division/New Order bassist Peter Hook, but his playing has never exhibited this influence more strongly than on Songs from the Shoebox. The most upbeat elements of Hook’s work with Joy Division are channeled by Cashion throughout the album and repackaged in a colorful, happy wrapping. Indeed, mid-album instrumental “Dusty Snails” sounds like it could be a tribute to the bass-line of “Disorder.”
The title Songs from the Shoebox, for me, conjures images of the sorts of knick-knacks and keepsakes you might stow away in your closet and, living up to this image, the album plays a bit like a scrapbook. It feels simultaneously unserious and deeply personal, trivial and precious. Opener “Tight Side of Life” sets the mood for the album, starting with cartoon spring sounds before leaping dramatically into upbeat post-punk guitar work. After a psychedelic drum breakdown in the song’s second half, the the sax makes its entrance, carrying the track through its melodic finish.
If you listen to one song from Songs from the Shoebox, make it the title track “Shoebox.” At least sonically, this song brings the record down from playfulness to a far more solemn place. If we’re comparing The Snails to Joy Division and early New Order, then “Shoebox” is their “Ceremony.” Just like “Ceremony,” “Shoebox” glides back and forth between gorgeous, downtempo guitar riffs and a passionate, uptempo chorus. The difference is that while the brooding, Ian Curtis-penned lyrics to “Ceremony” center around a fractured relationship, I’ll be damned if on “Shoebox,” Herring isn’t singing about basketball. (I cannot be certain as Herring’s voice is often difficult to decipher and lyrics, but I swear I hear stuff about ballgames, being able to “dunk that thing,” and “hit the three.”) Whether he’s talking hoops or not, when Herring gently repeats during one of the songs refrains — “She likes to watch me play, she likes the way I play” — he sounds like he’s at his most vulnerable, and it’s the album’s finest moment.
While Songs from the Shoebox isn’t serious or ambitious in the way a new Future Islands record might be, it strikes gold in the balance Herring and Cashion strike between revelling in low-stakes experimentation and keeping to their their commitment as pop musicians of producing deeply enjoyable music.
Matt Pegan is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]