[18 May 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Since the Shins hit it big, Sub Pop has been lining up a series of folk-pop acts to follow in their footsteps. There has been, of course, the major success of Fleet Foxes, and all this time Fruit Bats have been sadly undersold, but there’s also been acts like Daniel Martin Moore who didn’t quite catch on—though he is quietly coming into his own. Now we’ve got the latest in that folky train, the Head and the Heart, whose sweet sound could lead to a serious break out.
The trouble, though, is that there’s something very savvy about the Seattle act’s eponymous debut. The bouncing piano, the gentle strum of acoustic guitar, the sweet vocals, the faintly recognizable but catchy melodies, it all sounds very much like the kind of thing a Shins fan would latch onto. In fact, it sounds too perfectly like that. If the band’s name implies its targets with its music, it seems to favor the former over the latter, overthinking ways to make us—all of us, every possible person out there—feel something in these breezy, pleasant tracks.
That’s not to say the band isn’t good at what it does. This buoyant piano-pop is undeniably sweet to hear all the way through. You’re not likely to get turned off by the sunny “Coeur D’Alene” or the bittersweet “Rivers and Roads”. “Lost in My Mind” is an earnest bit of pop that will easily stick in your head, and “Sounds Like Hallelujah” is an effective mix of strings with full-bodied vocals and piano that fill up the tune. It’s clear all the way through the record that the band knows what it’s doing. The players have a path and they walk it well.
They also walk it safely, though. What holds the Head and the Heart back is that, in an effort to capture something universal, they never really hit us with specific, compelling details. The well-worn ideas of love at a distance, of traveling to get lost or found, of finding solace in a drink or five—they’re all here, but we are never given any details to latch onto. As a result, many of the songs come off as broad musical tropes and not distinct narratives. Josiah Johnson and Jonathan Russell, the songwriting duo at the center of the band, know well how to represent sentiments we’re familiar with, but they never go the next step to make them distinct. Their friend in “Ghosts” is “running from something” or maybe just “chasing girls”. “Coeur D’Alene” pines over the “things people will do for the ones that they love”, but they never quite articulate what those things are. Not only does that make it hard to see where exactly the hope in these songs comes from, but when they try to mine hard times—on the drinking tune “Down in the Valley”—it doesn’t seem all that believable.
This lack of specificity spills over into the music itself. The songs are surely poppy, but their catchiness rests more on the sweetness of the vocals, and the pleasant mix of guitar and piano over measured drums. The hooks rarely stick out in the mix, so that little distinguishes their sound from other bands treading similar musical ground. All this points to a band trying to appeal to as many people as possible. The Head and the Heart sounds all too aware of what will draw the most people in, and what starts as pleasant turns into something all too often indistinct. “The interaction feels so cold”, Russell sings at one point, which unfortunately sums up the distance between band and listener here. You get the impression the band could make a connection with us—they’ve certainly got some chops—if they stop thinking so much about what usually works and start doing what works for them.