Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Head and the Heart

Following last week's hardscrabble concept album from Southeast Engine comes a less thematic but just as a rootsy and spiritualized take on Americana from the Seattle, Wash. sextet The Head and the Heart. Instead of a closely linked set of characters and settings as heard previously, the group's eponymous debut offering (officially released today on Sub Pop Records, although digital versions have been available for more than a year) focuses more on a single and more loosely-defined theme to unite its work – a literary convention which spans Homer to The Hold Steady: leaving and returning home.

Hardly reflective of their hometown's signature sound that emerged nearly two decades ago, The Head and the Heart are morseo in keeping with the more widespread roots-rock / alt-country revival that has gained a foothold in recent years, originating with the Uncle Tupelo/Wilco/Son Volt triumvirate in the early 90s right on through to The Decemberists' The King Is Dead. And yet, while violins and rustic acoustic guitars center the 10-track collection, strong undercurrents of pop sensibility add a layer of distinctiveness to the effort.

Opener "Cats and Dogs" serves much the same mission as Okkervil River employed with "Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe" on their The Stage Names record, with its clicking E strings and snare rims for the initial third of the track's expedient 1:58. Co-frontmen and guitarists Josiah Johnson and Jon Russell swap lead vocals throughout the proceedings, while the entire outfit rounds out the vocal approach with hearty but not saccharine harmonies, bolstering their roots bona fides.

The pop-flavored festivities arrive quickly via the combination of "Coeur d'Alene" and "Ghosts." How much the former is a fitting representation of its Idaho namesake is dubious given the buoyant piano part laid down by pianist/keyboardist Kenny Hensley – perhaps the most noticable component of the unit – and would make a fine pairing with The 1900's similarly peppy "When I Say Go." The telltale pop line of "I'll give you three bucks for your sympathy and another for a cigarette; the interaction feels so cold" doesn't feel particularly evocative of northern Idaho, but is no less easy on the ears. Meanwhile, the latter emerges with a southern-fried piano lick from Hensley before filling in with a do-do-do chorus not far removed from a more upbeat version of The Decemberists' "The Soldiering Life."

Strangely, the project pivots immediately after, summoning Springsteen's Ghost of Tom Joad or his latter Devils and Dust at the outset of "Down in the Valley." The escaping popiness is swept out the door with the mean broom stroke of the following stanza:

I wish I was a slave to an age-old trade,
like ridin' around on railcars and workin' long days;
Lord have mercy on my rough and rowdy ways

Seriously? Where did that come from? But despite the apparent arrival of the forlorn balladeer, the group reemerges with its fuller sound not long after, and steadily injects body into the mid-tempo number. A couple minutes later, and we're nearly in revival tent mode (well, sort of), with violinist/percussionist Charity Thielen and the rhythm section of bassist Chris Zasche and drummer Tyler Williams delivering some needed gravity to support the front-end work of Johnson, Russell and Hensley. It's a pattern that repeats for much of the album's middle third – a soft entry from Johnson or Russel, to be met down the road by the full party apparatus. Such is the case with "Rivers and Roads" – highlighted by some change-of-pace spot vocals from Thielen – and the folksy "Honey Come Home," displaying some delightful front porch harmonizing and a perhaps unintentional nod to the influence of Okkervil River on the genre's recent direction.

First single "Lost in My Mind" is buried towards the back and features a foot-tapping, piano-and-vocals format (a la the Ben Folds/Ben Kweller/Ben Lee super trio The Bens' minor key "Let's Pretend") and includes some truly goosebumps-inducing vocal blends, but doesn't seem to have enough juice to leave the stratosphere as it teases you to expect something orbital. "Winter Song" is gentle and earnest – again emboldened by spot duty from Thielen – but is still only the second best alt-country tune called "Winter Song," after the Crash Test Dummies 1993 version, a legitimate early entry to the format.

The concluding numbers are more spiritually-inclined, as the titles "Sounds Like Hallelujah" and "Heaven Go Easy On Me" might suggest. The rolling gospel of "...Hallelujah" is exuberant, but only after a solid minute of slightly moody folk. By the time it wraps its 3:12 running time, there's a good deal more that could have been done with its thumping groove at the end. On the other hand, "Heaven..." is a perfect submission for the closer; the traditional last cut of Side B, with its competing rounds of "we're well on our way," "all these things are rushing by" and "all things must end, darlin'" marking a ideal point for a fading departure.

Usually, I tend to pick one or two tracks in each review I'm less enamored with. Here, it's more of the Michael Bolton character in Office Space, in that I kinda like 'em all. But my one gripe is the lyrics can occasionally draw towards hokey at best and cliched at worst. For example, "reading good books and playin' songs" in "Heaven..." or "...Hallelujah's" "I'm just waitin' on the sun to close his eyes and call it a night" A minor defect in an otherwise stellar debut.

Come for: "Lost in My Mind"
Stay for: "Coeur d'Alene"/"Ghosts"
You'll be surprised by: "Down in the Valley"

P.S. The Head and the Heart will be touring later this summer with NMTs favorites The Decemberists. Eventually there might even be a Touring Schedule Saturdays post with some of these details.

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