Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Head and The Heart ... and the ears!

We've all had friends, co-workers and store employees who give us recommendations. Doesn't matter if it's music, movies or appliances, we're sometimes pointed in the direction of something we've never heard of.

It was my good fortune to be pointed in the direction of the band The Head and The Heart. One of the fine gentlemen at my local independent music store has been piecing together my tastes and suggested I give this band a try (he'd noticed my love of The Fleet Foxes and The Beach Boys, so he knew I liked great vocals and cool music arrangements).

I'm always on the lookout for a good musician or group to add to my palette, so I was interested to see what this group had to offer. I bought a copy of the album, headed home, popped it into the player and settled down next to my fiancee for a listen.

We listened to it all the way.

Then we listened to it again.

Then we listened to it a third time! Next to each other, my fiancee and I got caught up in the vocals, the instrumentation, the arrangements, the lyrics, the very TONE of the album ... We have different tastes that have some overlap (we both like "Pet Sounds" and The Beatles), but this album hit us both in a big way. I can't speak for her emotional involvement with the material, but I felt very warm with this album. It was comfortable and though-provoking stuff.

And that was just the first sitting. Since then, I've probably spun it a minimum of three times a week, and I've had it for at least two full months by this point. It has consistently knocked me out, and may stand as my favorite album of the year to date. It's the kind of album that a casual listener can enjoy and that a focused listener can absorb.

The Head and The Heart are a group in the vein of The Fleet Foxes, The Decemberists, Mumford & Sons, etc. That isn't to say that this band SOUNDS like those bands. It's just that their approach to music is more along those lines than, say, Arcade Fire or My Chemical Romance or something. It's alternative folk (with a little alt. folk rock mixed in), with a heavy acoustic vibe and varied instrumentation. The vocals are certainly earnest, with a lot of harmonies and emotion, but there isn't any real attempt to be pop here. They're not basing their songs on catchy hooks or on repetitive choruses. This music is pretty deep.

The arrangements have plenty of dynamics to them, with hushed segments that build up to roars and fade again. Their vocal talents and instrumental prowess serve the songs, rather than standing as virtuosic performances (you won't get a blistering guitar solo or star vocalist treatments here, as the instrumental beds help paint pictures to support the lyrics and the vocalists take turns on lead even within the same song). Some songs may seem lush, others sparse, but the mood always suits the song. The feel of each song is very natural and complete.

All of that being said, this isn't a bland group or a solid wall of impenetrable, meandering lyrics. There are grooves in each song, and the singers work with those grooves. The words may be rather introspective, but they're not negative nor self-pitying. They're just thoughtful, as in "absorbed in or involving thought."

This Seattle-based band finds itself at home in the roots of Americana. An acoustic guitar here, a violin there, some drums, each song sounding like it could be performed in your living room (and they probably could be performed in your living room, too). Nowhere on this album can a listener find the group clawing desperately for a big chart hit. Nor does any group member here try to overwhelm any other member. This isn't a group for superstars. This is wholesome, comfortable music.

There are turns where the music gets more adventurous and playful. Even the first song, "Cats and Dogs," is more mischievous and fun. Check out the lyrics, featuring gardens swept under floor boards and a mouse that discovers nothing in the cupboard. Those words might not sound like much, but the delivery is fantastic. The song has got such energy and life to it.

My personal favorites are "Cats and Dogs," "Rivers and Roads," "Lost in My Mind" and "Sounds Like Hallelujah." But the other six songs are really great songs, building the foundation for a consistently strong effort. The album isn't a continuous movement, with interlinking segues; the songs stand alone from each other. But they have a certain organic flow that delivers a rewarding listening experience throughout.

A bunch of great singers and musicians got together, wrote some good lyrics, worked on the songs together to get the best out of them, and recorded a collection that is not just a gem of a debut album: it's a gem of an album, period. There are many groups who will never scale these heights, first album or tenth.

For those who enjoy The Fleet Foxes, "Automatic for the People"-era REM, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, The Decemberists, the "O Brother, Where Art Thou" soundtrack and good rootsy music, you'll find this album to be a beautiful addition to your collection.

Give the videos a chance. Listen to the lyrics. "Oh my brother / Your wisdom is older than me / Oh my brother / Don't you worry 'bout me." [From the song "Lost In My Mind."] Hey, that just hits me in the right spot (of course, I have a younger brother who is a hell of a good dude and a lot smarter than me). Or there's this: "My sister and my brother / Look to me for answers / And our fathers and our mothers / Wanna know they raised us right / Wanna know they raised us right" [from "Heaven Go Easy On Me"]. That's just ... right on. That hits me where I live, in this day and age, with me being where I am now. There's a lot of unease and confusion and my life is changing and my future is going to have ups and downs and everyone is looking for answers and on and on and on.

And that's where this album's real strength comes from ... it's music for the common man and common woman. These aren't superstars singing anthems, or teenagers singing about dating, or celebrities singing about wealth and popularity. These are the people you live next to, work with and talk to on the phone. This is real music from real people who have the talent to pull it all together.

This album is very big for me, and it continues to grow on me ... It's just that good. So many talented artists and groups are emerging these days, and in the last few years in general, that I feel very good about the state of music and the availability of worthwhile new material to come.

My thanks goes to the fine gentleman who suggested the album to me, for his recommendation has added a beautiful disc to my collection. I hope others get the chance to experience this album as my fiancee and I did.

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