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The Head and Heart has plenty of heart

By Alan Tran

Section: Arts

March 2, 2012

The Head and the Heart sings with a style reminiscent of other, more well-known bands on their label like The Decemberists and Death Cab For Cutie, but the deeper voices of Josiah Johnson and Jonathan Russell (also the band’s founders) indicates the darker emotional underpinnings beneath their songs. Though bright at times, they inevitably return to the darker side of sweetness and the more yearning, lost side of youth in a confusing and discouraged world. On their website, their bio says their songs will get “even the jaded humming along by the second listen”—if that’s to whom they’re appealing, it would certainly explain a lot.

The band originally self-released their self-titled album when they debuted in 2009, and re-released it with re-mastered and additional tracks after signing with Sub Pop Records. Each song is artfully crafted, and this care is extended to the shape of the album. It’s meant to be listened to from beginning to end, and is more easily appreciated this way, each song transforming and evolving from the last to the next. The album begins with 15 seconds of drumstick-tapping leading the first, playful song, building up toward the album’s strongest songs in the middle and only gradually receding to its emotional farewell track.

Throughout the album the instrumental parts are tightly composed and performed with such precision and balance you might not guess they’re being played by a six separate people. Johnson and Russell both play guitar, whose acoustic atmosphere blends well with Kenny Hensley’s piano-playing and Chris Zasche’s bass. Tyler William’s drum beats are simple and effective, though sometimes can come out too strongly. On some tracks the piano dominates with a swinging, jazzy feel, and in others the violin, played by Charity Rose Thielen, and tambourine make cameo accompaniments. When the group backs up the vocals, it has that casual companion-like touch that makes them sound not just like musicians but friends as well.
The most powerful song of the album is clearly “Down in the Valley,” which is also the longest track at just more than five minutes and the reason why drummer Tyler Williams joined the band at all. It begins softly and ends with a light touch, but within that journey it takes the listener soaring skyward, when “I saw your face in the crowd and you came out / Just like the sun and the moon and the stars at night.” The song builds on nostalgic guitar strumming, its sweeping piano chords and vocals so heart-heavy you wish Johnson would just shout to release some of the emotional pressure being built up. The first three songs build up to this flagship piece and, while some of the rest also stand out, they still follow in its wake.

That said, “Honey Come Home” also stands out, both because of its strong upbeat tempo and because it’s heartbreaking once you pay attention to the lyrics. A plea from one lover to another to return, lyrics like, “The kids say hello / to us in our separate homes” are carried away by a tambourine jangling out a quick beat and stirring piano progression, and the high point of the song repeating “Just wanna die with the one I love beside me” is all too ironic. “Lost in my mind,” contains a similar irony, beginning poignantly but circling round to those self-same lyrics getting sung louder and louder until they take on an almost euphoric quality.

The first three tracks are less memorable, though the dog barking in the opening song “Cats and Dogs” always makes me smile. “Ghosts” feels especially dark and somewhat out of place, with the piano creating an almost theatrical feel, but at least it’s an interesting contrast. “River and Roads” has a nice slow swing, which, if anything, might be a tad too slow and emphatic. Still, they manage to make “I miss your face like hell” sound poignant, not overly dramatic or dry, and the chorus is somehow catchy in all its drawly-ness. We also get to hear Thielen sing solo vocals, which is a nice switch.

“Winter Song” is a beautifully reflective song, with solo vocals shared between the three singers. It would have been even more touching if they’d trusted in the delicate sentimentality of its lyrics, and not built up crescendos with every “had.” And the final song, “Heaven Go Easy On Me,” sounds a bit confused. Whether it’s ironic or fatalistic is difficult to say—it almost sounds like it’s trying to be encouraging, but hasn’t quite settled on a way to do that while singing things like, “Can’t live this way forever / Gotta make ourselves some money.” Among a number of songs that deal poignantly with somber realities, this final send-out just flops.

These songs aren’t meant for pop culture—they’re a little too complicatedly dark for that—and most don’t have the same power without being heard among the other tracks of the album. Unlike many bands’ names, The Head and the Heart has some meaning they hold by, and each song carries some of that intention as well. Some tracks you’d want to dance to and there are few that you could sing without having passersby wonder what must be going on in your conflicted heart. But if what you’re looking for are some songs that let you reminisce about nights around campfires in the summer with friends, or autumn afternoons spent swinging on a front porch, you’ll find some gems here among the flint.

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