When Future Islands delighted David Letterman and subsequently dominated your Facebook feed in 2014, the moment was the viral boom at the end of a long, slow burn. Future Islands hadn't come out of nowhere, hadn't been manufactured by some label or financier. A performance that assured and camera-ready could only be the result of some very hard work, like years of long tours and unwavering focus.
On some level, though, the charisma of Future Islands singer Sam Herring seems so specific it must be innate. The band's rock-adjacent synthpop isn't that different from large swaths of marginally popular, festival-friendly stuff that's been so dominant in indie circles during the last decade. Herring's lived-in oddity makes Future Islands singular. His Stanley Kowalski intensity, pinned to the semi-suaveness of an aging suburban mambo instructor, renders standard pop-song longing as last-chance romance. Coming from a tousled-haired kid, "Seasons (Waiting on You)" could be ho-hum; coming from Herring, it's life or death.
As much of himself as Herring puts across in Future Islands, with his heavy metal growls clashing with Tom Jones crooning, one band can't contain every interest or whim. The band's sudden leap in success after signing to 4AD—and, in particular, that Letterman performance—means that Herring's side-hustles are news now. Blogs tracked him popping up under nom de rap "Hemlock Ernst," with bemused interest. (Cameos on tracks by far-flung collaborators like Australian group Curse Ov Dialect and American underground rappers like Milo and Open Mike Eagle exhibit a dexterous, if not entirely seamless, flow.) Along with Future Islands bassist William Cashion, he's also a key component of the very strange-seeming new band The Snails.
The Snails formed in 2008 to play a birthday party for Baltimore rapper Spank Rock. If unearthed, footage of that first performance might be a perfect time capsule of the inter- locking oddness of that city's vibrant music scene during the last decade, which seemed from the outside like a Day-Glo DIY comic strip. During the last seven years, The Snails have survived shifting permutations, sucking in members of B-more bands big and small (Lower Dens, Wume, Nuclear Power Pants, Small Sur, Teeth Mountain) for sporadic live shows. A willingness to strap on plush, snail-headed cowls for a performance and execute songs that exalt the small, noble lives of garden mollusks has been the central requirement.
An EP, cheekily titled Worth the Wait, finally materialized in 2014, elevating the band beyond party stunt. And early this year, the thin idea translated into a belated debut album, Songs from the Shoebox. Yes, the shoebox is where they, actual snails, live.
It's the sort of high concept that only works as a side outlet for musicians with better known primary gigs. As an artistic conceit, this should barely sustain a parody Twitter account, let alone a full-length album. Still, stridently unimportant larks are often more delightful than too-careful works of perfect craft and, at a slight twenty-eight minutes, Songs from the Shoebox doesn't tax patience. There are no dirges, no odes to the existential dread posed by family dogs or rock salt. The songs are bright, shaggy, brief. If anything, Songs from the Shoebox is not weird enough to fully execute the fleeting whimsy that's always held the center of The Snails' existence.
The Snails' sound is looser than that of Future Islands; that group's big-swing gravitas would seem out of place amid these affable jams. Pinging guitar noodles, bobbing bass lines, and alternately smooth and shrieking horns back Herring's vocals. The singer slips out of cruise-ship crooner mode here, singing instead in a low yelp that seems to catch on the back of his throat and emerge in tatters. "Tight Side of Life" rolls forward with a winning power-pop choogle. "Parachutes" mixes jangly college rock and soft-rock sax that would have been ostracized from the original vintage.
The holiday anthem "Snails Christmas (I Want a New Shell)" makes the most strange sense. It's convincingly seasonal, for one, its saxophone blasts giving off the radiant warmth of a crackling hearth. And, as with Alvin and the Chipmunks or the California Raisins (comparisons the band members have put forward themselves), the baked-in novelty vibes of The Snails are as traditional as Christmas ham. It's the rare song on the record that's legitimately eccentric, not just another indie rock number that's unusual only for the silly backstory bestowed upon it.
It's charming that one of the first real post-breakthrough moves of Herring and Cashion gathers old friends to goof off. No one can begrudge some snails having a little fun. And if that's all The Snails are remembered for in the long run, which seems likely, mission accomplished.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Shell Company"