The EP is the perhaps the most maligned of release formats. Often used as a band’s dumping ground for b-sides, covers or live tracks, the EP is usually an item resigned to diehard fans of the artist only. Champaign, Illinois’ Headlights on the other hand, have reclaimed the format for their own. The Enemies is Headlights’ four-song statement of intent—and what a statement it is. The traditional indie rock line-up, is fleshed out with electronic flourishes, and a nice variety of backing instrumentation including pedal steel and violin. Falling somewhere between My Bloody Valentine and Rainer Maria, Headlights play black velvet curtained indie rock to shimmering perfection.
The band sets the tone for The Enemies on the stunning intro “Tokyo”. The track opens with subdued electronic noise, before bursting wide open, with beautifully picked guitar and pedal steel (dexterously played by Bud Carroll) nicely complimenting each other. What resonated the most with this listener, were the small sonic details scattered throughout the song. Each line of the verse, with shared vocals by guitarist Tristan Wraight and keyboardist Erin Fein, comes to an almost full stop, with little shards of electronic glitch or guitar noise to fill the space, creating an undulating, but undeniable, momentum. However, it’s the chorus, with its poetic lyrics (“Another broken heart/ Another town you must/ Take in stride”) and the soaring lap steel as Wraight sings “stride” that will hook listeners.
“Centuries”, finds Headlights switching gears and picking up the tempo with a more upbeat number that recalls Club 8. With its insistent keyboard line and dual vocals, the song is positively infectious. Again, small details like a surging synth line and additional percussion, make this a rewarding listen, and it’s a small wonder that Wraight and Fein can make a line like “We’ll all die someday” into a sing-along anthem.
The introduction of “Everybody Needs a Fence to Lean On” displays a Portishead influence, as Fein quietly sings accompanied by a minimal, but dour, keyboard line. This doesn’t last too long however, as the song swings back the other way into another delicious pop number, led by a hook laden bass line. Again, it’s an unlikely line (“Everybody has their enemies”) that will stay in listeners’ heads for the next few days. This another song in which Wraight and Fein share and trade off vocals, and in case it hasn’t sunk in yet, their voices are Headlights’ secret weapon.
The EP closes with “It Isn’t Easy to Live That Well”, a beautiful combination of chiming guitars, moody synths and Fein’s undeniable vocals. This track is easily the synthesis of Headlights’ sound. The group has an uncanny ability in shrouding dark emotions with nicely crafted pop hooks. Feeling bad has never sounded this good.
Some of the credit for this EP’s success must be given to Adam Schmidt. Credited with recording and mixing the album, he provides a spacious and airy playground for the group. The drums are bold, the bass thick, the guitars light and airy with the keyboards gently woven throughout. But none of this would’ve succeeded without the songs.
Unfortunately The Enemies is available only through mail order, but it’s more than worth the effort in tracking down. Hit up the Polyvinyl website, add this to your cart, and experience one of the most refreshing and assured indie rock debuts of 2004.
// Notes from the Road
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