The Head and the Heart: Let’s Be Still

[6 November 2013]

By Raymond E. Lee

Four years after the self release of the Head and the Heart’s self titled debut, the Seattle sextet returns with their greatly anticipated sophomore release, Let’s Be Still. Two years of relentless touring after the release combined with 10,000 units moved directly from the back of the van and industry chatter to influence regional powerhouse Sub Pop to take on the group as clients and release The Head and The Heart under their own brand label.
Success met success with this venture. The Sub Pop exposure led to high visibility touring slots, and the album continued to render healthy sales figures. There is very little reason to wonder why. Four years of touring covering roughly 40 minutes of music meant H&H were an act not to be missed at any regional summer mega-festival. Their self-titled album could be considered a bit lopsided in that its strong suits more than make up for tracks that shouldn’t be described as filler so much as middle of the road. The Head and the Heart might have been better labeled the Hot and the Cold. Where they work, they kill, but they aren’t without faults.

This band met at open mics, after all, and so it should come as no surprise that some of the latter half inclusions on the self titled come off as hyper personal hyperbole. To turn a phrase there is no bitter in this life without sweet, so to see tracks like “Cats and Dogs”, “Ghosts”, or especially “Rivers and Roads” performed live is to witness a tiny glimpse of the Lord. Desultory lyrical settings meet the vocally delivered hope and ambition of youth, with expressions to match painted across each member’s face their harmonies melt and intertwine to create stunning crescendos.

This contrasts both beautifully and violently against rolling piano lines, emotive percussion and minimalist fiddle accompaniment to express triumph and defeat within a well delineated three minute pop parameter. It can be breath-taking, heart wrenching, ecstatically opulent, no less so when Ms. Charity Rose Theilen enters the final movement of “Rivers and Roads”. To witness audience members openly weep with the understanding some percentage therein is totally unfamiliar with the act lends credence to the suffix contained in the term pop-art.

Of course the end design of music is the artificial manipulation of emotion, still few albums outside of Disneyclub child stars turned premanufactured pop recording artists have been so assaulted by critics while simultaneously received so warmly by fans. With the release of Let’s Be Still, the Head and the Heart have the opportunity to prove they’re a cut above the glut of similar groups to surface in the last few years. Much like the Lumineers, Shovels and Rope, the Alabama Shakes or Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, H&H have experienced massive success in related genres without an abundance of recorded material. This type of pressure can be a hard thing to understand for anyone who hasn’t been in similar circumstances. When asked about the intimidation of expectations for Let’s Be Still, Chris Zasche bassist and co-songwriter responded likewise:

“I feel like I’m at peace with what’s happening. Whether it’s total failure, complete success or somewhere in the middle I feel good about it. We made a great record with some great songs, and had a lot of good experiences doing it. I get that question a lot these days, ‘How do you feel about the sophomore slump?’ Truthfully, there’s nothing you can do about it. Once you make a record, it’s over, and there’s no use worrying about it.”

Keyser Söze spoke in similar terms about the mentality of criminals after their arrest in the cult film The Usual Suspects. Acknowledging the lineup mentioned above, could there be a typeset for success over the bizarre course of the last several years in American culture? One look at the socio-political landscape of this nation under turmoil and parallels between the present and folk music’s past flourishings begin to surface.

What is it about being broke that brings out the folk? Dustbowl-era folkies Guthrie, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, and other “Dirty Thirties” musicians were championed by labor rights activists, the poor and angry. The second modern blossoming of folk in the sixties saw Dylan, Simon and a host of others revered by student activists, the poor and angry. So who comprises the demographic today? Outside of Occupier activists and the drunken ramblings of every barstool politico in America, where is the movement? It certainly isn’t students or the blue collar labor class. But there’s still a market for folk music. If E.A. Poe were a 21st century man he might answer, “Consumers and nothing more.”

We live in a very, very unique time and it will take decades to process what is happening to us as Americans. To look at the times from just after the millennium unto today is to survey a multitude of bizarre foundation shattering events. Anarchists rejoice: the government has shut down! In addition, the unions have failed us, we’re quickly approaching another debt ceiling, we’re embroiled in a decade’s long war on foreign soil, the middle class is shrinking, the popular national past time is apocalyptic daydreaming, everybody’s broke, the American dream is bankrupt on selling and it seems like everything around us is melting. So exactly how do four and five piece music groups from every corner of the country find success singing simple songs involving simple string composition when the times seem so bleak?

“In any deep depression what’s the one business that stays open? I think we act as the bar for certain people. Our shows tend to be very energetic and fun, yet some of our songs are sentimental among all the other feelings. We try really hard to engage people. When everything is in the dumps you can still go to one of our shows and feel good, feel connected. Especially playing every night, to see people having a good time despite everything going on. Fuck the government, who cares what they’re doing?! [laughs] We have our own thing over here, and it’s good, and it’s fun and anyone can be a part of it. And I think when times aren’t going so well, people need that more than ever.”

From the first bars of Let’s Be Still’s opening track, “Homecoming Heroes” one immediately senses H&H are headed in a new direction. The production value alone indicates as much. Whereas the self-titled’s rustic homespun recording process lent an element of intimacy to the material which seamed flawlessly with the interpersonal lyrical perspective, the new record heaves off these burdens in favor of a more modernly acceptable format. Let’s Be Still, is a very clean record, the individual tracks aren’t so much crisp as they are polished. But that intimacy feels lost. Does the increased production value, and let’s not mince words here, money, add or diminish the emotional payload of the new record? Popular opinion will prevail.

With the music industry one has their entire life to make their first record, but only about a year for the second. This is the best defense for the often sighted Sophomore Slump. That dynamic doesn’t quite apply for the Head and the Heart, it has been actually quite the opposite considering their first recording was rushed due to the expense of self-recording. With Let’s Be Still H&H had the luxury of increased funding and additional time. So without that dynamic at work what could be the issue for the albums several flaws?

Foremost to be considered are certain lyrical cliches. The worst offender might be the track, “Josh McBride”. The folksy psuedo-wisdom contained in the familial chorus could be considered a bit trite. To suspend analytics and listen for a purely esthetic purpose the track comes off fine. Its deep position on the album also serves to mask its filler status. One can’t be too discerning after the lovely combination of “Springtime”, and “Summertime.” If Spring be the promise then Summer delivers what fans had clamored for since H&H gained national prominence. Ms. Charity Rose Theilen is given her own track, “Summertime”, correcting an issue many fans bemoaned from the first record. This track is a departure from H&H’s established sound showing a decidedly indie-rock group of influences, synth crescendos a la Arcade Fire, and a Karen O. approach to vocals. Its inclusion not only satisfies a long held desire but also serves to break up the mid-tempo Dylanesque balladry.

Based on its own merits Let’s Be Still could be described as an industry standard, nothing more and certainly nothing less. It’s unfair to detail the album in negative terms, but upon consideration of previous output it does leave something to be desired. Production value might have over compensated for rough material. High expectations might have placed insurmountable pressure on a group whose first work was from birth unabashedly born to lose.

Or perhaps the sentimental pedestal on which the collective consciousness has placed the self titled, with its back story, working-man blues and universal appeal means the audience has a skewed perception, not that the group has a hidden agenda. There is little to suggest anything sinister is taking place. The Head and the Heart have worked for every bit of success they’ve achieved; they’ve come up the hard way in an industry that is absolutely unforgiving in terms of failure. For better or worse Let’s Be Still will entertain and inspire. The demographic to enjoy that entertainment and inspiration may not be their core audience, ultra hip young urbanites, modern mustachioed Americana or edge of the industry hep-cats. There’s a strong possibility you won’t enjoy this record, but it will be successful. Give credit where it’s due and Let’s Be Still won’t disappoint.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/176180-the-head-and-the-heart-lets-be-still/