[16 November 2009]
The Headlocks began as a lowly folk-rock group a few years back but decided to step up its game and recruited half of Staten Island’s music scene to create a local supergroup. After corralling a 17-member troupe into the studio, the question remains: Was it worth it? The Headlocks plan of attack is simple: two chords and a dream, or the Van Morrison approach. Guitarist Frank Duffy pounds away at his acoustic, while Rob Carey leads the choir on vocals. The basic achievement of Cuckoo Bird was to layer all the elements into a package that enhanced the songs rather than cloud them. Although some fare better than others, in total it’s mission accomplished.
One the most glaring examples of progress is pianist Steve Pepe, musician by trade, high school teacher by necessity. Pepe labors over an organ in the live setting but makes full use of a Baldwin stand-up on the record, and the clarity is markedly different, supplying a stunning array of piano fills on songs like “Shelter”, “Amen Good Charles”, and the rollicking folk tune “Another Flood”. The other remarkable feat on Cuckoobird was cramming all those backing vocals into one angelic layer of harmonies. On the opening track “Me or You”, Carey diffidently croons, “I used to never think twice about a fallen angel,” as the choir chimes in behind him right on cue. “Driving in the Dark” uses the old school shout-along method with similar success.
Cuckoobird balances the rowdy hoedown moments with soft-spoken contemplative tunes that veer on adult rock. “It’s a Wonderful Life” put Carey in the spotlight with his harmonica as Duffy’s guitar chugs along. The most surprising part of the album is how well the radio-friendly tracks hold up. If the Headlocks are trying to be heard by the widest possible audience, then the band has achieved its goal, at least on the recording end. With so many artists chasing the long tail of the market, it’s interesting to see someone take the opposite approach. If the Headlocks succeed, it will have to be done off Staten Island. As they used to say in spaghetti westerns: “This town ain’t big enough for the two of us.”