[5 September 2006]
The largest complaint generally leveled against music critics is that we take our jobs for granted. That for work which allows us the benefit of receiving free music before its available to the general public, our negative reviews are not always justified. The truth of the matter is that most music critics—in particular online music critics—are paid very little, if anything at all, and write simply for the joy of discovering new music. And it is that excitement of discovering something fantastic and new that keeps us forever diving through piles of CDs for the next Arcade Fire or Strokes.
Headlights’ debut Enemies EP was one of those discs that makes sifting through the others worth it. It was a surprisingly assured debut, matching deeply-felt emotion with evocative and mature musicianship. I raved about the EP, which at the time was mail order only, and was glad when I later heard Polyvinyl had officially signed the act and given the EP a wider release. However, if the critic’s high is the discovery of a great new act, the low is the disappointment of a record that greeted with high expectation.
When the new batch of discs to review arrived my mailbox, Headlights’ brand new full-length, Kill Them With Kindness, went straight to the top of the pile. I sat down at my computer, slipped the disc in, put on my headphones, and got prepared for what I was sure was going to be the breakthrough album the four songs on Enemies hinted at. Unfortunately, the disc’s opening track was jarringly disorienting. It takes some confidence to open an album with it’s longest song, and while I admire their gumption, the awkwardly shifting, string-laden “Your Old Street” doesn’t quite work. The rest of the album wasn’t faring much better on my first listen through, and by the midway point I actually turned it off, both to tone down my expectations, and to allow the album to speak for itself rather than what I hoped it would be.
When I got back to it a day later, I couldn’t deny that the very things that made them special on their debut were either toned down or tossed out, and what remains is a fairly standard indie rock album. The biggest change present is the overall tone. Where Enemies was emotionally downbeat, Kill Them With Kindness is surprisingly sunny. While I can’t fault the members for finding happiness, for whatever reason the music is that much less compelling. Much of the album shares the jauntiness of Rainer Maria or Rilo Kiley, but without the dramatic wall of sound and richness of texture that made Enemies so fantastic.
To be fair, there are a couple songs that work fantastically. Both “Put Us Back Together” and “Pity City” (which previously appeared on the vinyl edition of Enemies and on a split 7” with Canada’s Most Serene Republic) are the balance of pop, mood, and dynamics that first brought them to my attention. On a shorter album, these songs alone might ratchet up the rating a point or even two, but these tracks are negated by the bloated running time. Spanning fourteen tracks, there are at least three songs that not only disrupt the flow of the disc, but are completely unnecessary. The instrumental “Struggle W/ Numbers” is as inconsequential as it is forgettable, the eighteen-second harmonica track “The Midwest Is the Best” is baffling, while the brief rock-out number “Lions” merely sounds like a work in progress.
It pains me to be critical of an album I really wanted to love, but I can only hope these are just growing pains for the group. The album is easy to digest, and as a first time listen for many indie rock fans, it’s something that can be effortlessly held close to their chest. But Kill Them With Kindess simply doesn’t demonstrate the talent or caliber of song I know that Headlights are capable of.