The Head and the Heart – [Album]

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Even a cursory glance at the current crop of artists drawing the most interest in the roots, folk and Americana genres these days illustrates why it has become so difficult for new, untested artists to break through: for the first time in decades, the top artists aren't treating the music like a disposable escape from larger projects. Artists like The Lumineers, John Grant, Lydia Loveless and The High Bar Gang have all released fantastic albums over the last eighteen months and those are only this writer's personal favorites; there are plenty of names making even bigger waves. With the scene already so well-populated, it seems difficult to imagine a band being able to turn heads by simply playing the game a little differently, but that's exactly what The Head And The Heart do on their sophomore album, Let's Be Still. On first listen, there's no question that the Seattle-based sextet are really just further expanding on the ideas and sounds which first appeared on their 2011 debut album, but there's also no question that the changes made amount to all the difference one could possibly imagine. Simply said, while their first album wasn't bad, Let's Be Still is an exciting step beyond that start.

From the moment “Homecoming Heroes” opens Let's Be Still, those listening will be able to sense that, while there are elements of the heartfelt and folksy sound in the song which are de rigeur for fans of Americana, it is most definitely not the same old song and dance. Rather than coming off like the little group which can shake your foundations in a great big way (as so many other groups trading under the Americana and alt0country labels have endeavored to do recently), the band offers a mammoth orchestration featuring all six parts of their of their guitar, bass, piano, drums, violin lineup as well as vocal contributions from Jonathan Reissell, Josiah Johnson and Charity Thielen. That's the first bit of distance TH&TH throws between itself and the Americana convention (lyrics like “I duck into alleys/ I avoid the rallies/It's a choice of my own” are the second), but it's certainly not the only one. This first track seeks to be lush and almost cinematic in its style where most Americana wants to be small and introspective. That desire is a huge and obvious departure, but somehow, the song never quite escapes the Americana aesthetic because it never leaves the warmth and heart so key to the sound behind. Where most folk seeks to be introspective by utilizing small and simple arrangements, “Homecoming Heroes” comes across as far more rockist in design and very flexible in structure. It's a great re-thinking of convention.

Through the dozen songs which follow “Homecoming Heroes,” The Head and The Heart continue stretching to see just how flexible the paradigm they're playing in can be, and how open-minded listeners really are. While definitely challenging and far from perfect, some of the band's experimentations prove to be pretty pretty surprising and sound; when Charity Thielen steals the mic for a lead vocal turn on “Springtime” and injects a bit of soul and a few Seventies synths into the mix, the results prove to be the sort which which definitely shake the conventions folk from the ground level, but also reaffirm them with themes of adventure and leaving home in the lyric sheets. Just in case listeners feel the band has ventured too far at some points too, songs like “Josh McBride,” “My Friends” and the album's title track arc back hard to center with very cliched sounds steeped in “Dylan and The Band” songwriting.

While some listeners may scoff and complain that, because The Head and The Heart is able to shift so easily between “classical” and “contemporary” folk styling, they must only be little more than fad-chasing wannabes but it would be hard to call the wealth of good songs and great performances on Let's Be Still a lucky accident. It would be far easier to assume that the quality of this work was very calculated and masterfully accomplished. If that is indeed the case, Let's Be Still may eventually come to be regarded as The Head and The Heart's first great breakthrough album; we'll only know for sure after a couple more get released and either instill and remove all doubt though.



Let's Be Still
is out now. Buy it here on Amazon .

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