In which the Champaign, Illinois trio steps away from indie rock and jumps headlong into…indie pop.
With Some Racing, Some Stopping, the Champaign, Illinois trio Headlights steps away from the indie rock of its previous two efforts and jumps headlong into... indie pop territory. Gone are Tristan Wraight's crunchy guitar chords and Erin Fein's art song proclivities. In their place are eleven atmospheric tracks that flirt with classic pop, dream pop, girl group stylings, psychedelia and even bubblegum. Unlike the band's previous two efforts, the Enemies EP and the 2006 CD Kill Them with Kindness, this disc isn't something you'll want to play loud. Instead, you'll want to play it endlessly because the songs are first-rate, the songs are wonderful and…did we mention how good these new songs are?
Even when it gets spacey, the songs on Some Racing, Some Stopping have hooks so catching that if they were a disease, well, I for one would be dying 1,000 deaths. Somewhere along the line composers Wraight and Fein figured out how to craft arrangements that brought out the best in their fragile melodies -- and vice versa. From start to finish, there's hardly a dull spot in the lineup. The biggest problem, in fact, is that there's only 33 minutes of music, so every time you play the disc you're left wanting more (hence the above comment about putting the CD on repeat play). There are shades of Rilo Kiley and Rooney, and even Wraight and Fein's old band Absinthe Blind. But Headlights is starting to define its own sound this time around.
The opener, "Get Your Head Around It", sets the tone for the album. Wraight's light electric guitar plucking and boyish vocals mix with Fein's bells to form a dreamlike sound space, after which Brett Saunderson's drums come marching in to lend some groove to the proceedings. "Cherry Tulips", the single, is pure pop candy, an upbeat dance track that has Fein's multitracked vocals running circles around each other in its chorus.
"Market Girl" finds Wraight complaining about some of life's little ups and downs, but his lyric is juxtaposed with one of his most exquisite melodies, making the song either an ode to survival or sadness, depending on your mood. Sleigh bells and a glockenspiel reference 1960s music, as does the Mersey Beat drumming in the following number, "April 2". Both tracks underscore Headlights' unique knack for being able to play music that rocks but still sounds light on its feet. Similarly, Headlights can evoke sounds of yesteryear and also sound up to date, thanks to their smart arrangements and production (the band self-produced the disc at home; Saunderson served as engineer).
The title track is a slow, mournful Fein ballad that uses the metaphor of beating hearts to bemoan people's lack of communication. It's probably an intentional metaphor that her voice is run through a filter here, because even while the spare arrangement leaves lots of room for her singing, it still sounds like she's struggling to communicate. The following track, "So Much for the Afternoon", conjures an entire world using scant instrumentation except some keyboards and Fein's multi-tracked "ooohs" and “aaahs", which carry the melody line.
An arpeggiated guitar line gives "School Boys" a majestic introduction before it moves into a zippy dance groove. Wraight's lyric consists of a bunch of enigmatic lines ("silence all the way home"); it's up to the listener to piece together what he's trying to say. The closer, "January", finds Wraight ruminating about the passage of time to the accompaniment of little more than his acoustic guitar and some percussion. Yet by the tune's end, you start to notice keyboards and electric guitar creeping in, marinating the tune in some melancholy counter-melodies.
The problem with writing about Some Racing, Some Stopping is that the songs seem to float by on gossamer wings, as they say, and it almost feels describing them too intricately would strip away their magic. Some Racing, Some Stopping has the ability to lull you into a dream-like trance, but still keep you tapping your foot all the while. How many records can you say that about?