Head of Femur are a pop-rock trio that thinks of itself as a pop-rock orchestra… and often turns into one. The group’s web site lists 17 band members, they’ve occasionally toured with nearly that many, and their new album Hysterical Stars lists an impressive 30 musicians as contributors. Sure, a few only added backing vocals or “mock trumpet”, but others played a wide variety of instruments. In addition to the usual rock instruments, there’s violin, viola, cello, flute, piccolo, harp, glockenspiel, trombone, trumpet, French horn, English horn, tenor sax, and baritone sax — what does that sound like except an orchestra? It’s like Clark Kent stepping into a phone booth: he looks mostly the same, but something’s different. When Head of Femur dress their songs with carefully arranged stings and horns, the songs gain power.
The first Head of Femur album, Ringodom or Proctor, incorporated a somewhat smaller number of these instruments in a seamless way. Without taking up too much of the spotlight, they bolstered the group’s varied and textured sound, which evoked prog-rock references through the songs often having multiple stages to them, yet in actuality more closely resembled a cross between various other rock styles of the past: glam-rock, ’60s rock in general, intimate folk-pop a la Bright Eyes, etc.
The first track on Hysterical Stars comes out the gate with enough propulsion that it’s easy to at first overlook the strings and horns, and decide that the group has streamlined its sound. Listen closer, as their sound is even fuller than before. And more varied. As the album proceeds, the instrumental flourishes are difficult to ignore, as is the ways the songs mutate or grow from what you’re expecting, before your very ears. The second song shares its “Ringodom or Proctor” title with the band’s first album, yet it’s the song that immediately establishes the songwriting growth this album displays, as it shifts from a rollicking pop song into a spacey bridge lightly evocative of dub reggae, back into pop, though the melancholy of it is stronger now, as it feels like some giddy ’80s radio song from the furthest regions of our memory, but then layered with lovely sad strings and invigorated with energy.
That ‘old but new’ feeling is fitting for a song which looks back to childhood, to times spent listening through the floorboards at arguments between parents, “a civil war [that] rages on”. Much of the album seems obsessed with memories of the past: sorting them out, making sense of them, but also often being inspired by them. There’s often a ‘let’s bring back the good times’ feeling to Head of Femur’s music. The ‘Ringodom’ they cherish is the swingin’ life of Ringo Starr in the ’60s and ’70s, as they imagine it to be. The rollicking song “Easy Street” tells the story of a boy waking up, dressing up in his finest clothes, and proclaiming to his parents that he’s “taking Easy Street from now on”. Opening track “Elliott Gould Is in California Split” references the Mustang Ranch while depicting a glitzy gambler’s life.
But at the same time there’s an acknowledgement that the good times weren’t always so good, that there’s always a level of hurt underneath the fun. ” Manhattan” celebrates youthful wonder but in the end considers in a frank way the damage a carefree life can do. The song ends with an apology, and a tearful plea for understanding: “You still mean more to me/ Than a million years of history.” Closing epic “Jack and the Water Buffalo” is a history-laden three-part take of a soldier’s journey from Ann Arbor to Cambodia . And “Song for Richard Manuel” reflects the obvious inspiration Head of Femur takes from music of the past — “I listen to the song/ When I hear it so strong/ I falter like a bird” — but it’s also a moving elegy to a great musician whose inner struggles ended with his suicide. The song is ultimately hopeful, giving the sense that one’s spirit lives on after death, and that music can be the vehicle.
Much of the strength in Head of Femur’s music lies in the way the group uses music of the past in a fresh way. That freshness comes from the songwriting, the way potent melodies weave through multiple settings and styles within the same songs. But even more than that, it’s in the ways that they expand their songs outward from their origins, taking small songs and making them big and glorious. Their music treads that line of being considered bombastic, but it stays on the right side of it. Instead of making the music seem bloated, the amount of instrumentation on each track adds dimensions to the songs. The glamorous-life sheen is amplified by the music’s richness, while the strings continually bring forth the tougher, real-life feelings underneath. By imagining themselves as an orchestra, and then bringing it to fruition, Head of Femur accentuate their music’s sexiness and its sadness, creating a wondrous hybrid between a Technicolor extravaganza and a tear-stained letter.