Once in a while, you find yourself blown away by an album from a band you’ve never heard of before. This was the case for me when I first listened to the Head and the Heart’s eponymous first album. While on the surface they seem like your generic West Coast hipster neo-folk, indie band, the Head and the Heart are far from that stereotype. Sure, they probably fall into that sub-genre, but there is something supremely special about this band and the music they play.
When I first gave the album a listen, I was hit by how familiar the music sounded, even though I had never heard it before. This is most likely due to the fact that the two male vocalists, Josiah Johnson and Jonathan Russell, sound eerily similar to Tim Smith, of Midlake, and Matthew Vasquez, of Delta Spirit, respectively. Even the sound of the band had the mix of those two bands. Still, there was something different. If anything the Head and the Heart sound more like The Band than anything else. Let me rephrase; their music sounds nothing like that of The Band, but the similarities of their music are undeniable.
First, and foremost, is the fact that both have three distinct vocalists that sound nothing alike when they sing separately, but when harmonized, they blend so perfectly that it seems like one voice is singing. Along with Johnson and Russell, Charity Rose Thielen adds her voice to most of the songs, mainly as backup, in an incredibly understated, yet powerful tone. All three, like Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, and Rick Danko, can lead a song without effort, but the beauty is in the harmonies, and they are all over this album, and they are perfect.
Second, the music sounds old and new at the same time. Just as The Band’s first two albums had a feel of being 100 years old and brand new at the same time, the Head and the Heart’s music seems like it came out of backroom parlors of the Wild West (mainly due Kenny Hensley’s standup piano) or Greenwich Village clubs of the 1960s, yet still sounds fresh.
Third, the recording is clean and obviously lacks any studio tricks to beef up their music, similar to The Band’s second album, which was mainly recorded live in Sammy Davis, Jr.’s pool house. This is extremely refreshing in an age of digital overdubs and autotune, and tells me this band can play their music live at an extremely high level. Maybe it’s just me, but there is something super special about bands who record this way, and tells me they are who they claim they are, and that they can play the shit out of their music.
Now before I discuss the band’s songs, I have to warn you that I am drawn to the music and not the lyrics. I won’t be writing about the meaning of the lyrics or how much they hit me, because honestly, I care more about how a song sounds than what it means. I usually don’t even know what the words of songs are unless I’ve heard the song over ten times, maybe more, in a short time frame. So I apologize to those of you who like dissections of lyrics, it’s just not gonna happen. Now, on to the songs.
Everything on this album is very good. Yet, while there is nothing sub-par, there is also no song that blows the rest out of the water. This is not a problem. This is a wonderful thing. It makes the album a whole entity, not just a collection of songs cobbled together for the sake of releasing an album. There are no hit singles, there are just quality songs. However, there are a few selections that stand out to me.
The first track on the album, “Cats and Dogs,” is one of them. The song begins with 11 seconds of two sets of non-stop eighth-note double-stop rim hits (sorry for getting all percussive on you), and then 5 seconds of one chord on an acoustic guitar strummed in the same eighth note pattern, layered on top. Then some wordless vocal harmonies come in, before Jonathan Russell starts singing. Nothing mind-blowing. But after a few seconds of Russell singing , another voice (likely Josiah Johnson) softly harmonizes with his, and then the wordless harmonies come back. Soon a third voice, which is distinctly Charity Rose Thielen’s, can be heard harmonizing with the other two, though even softer than the one before. The subtlety of these additions would likely go unnoticed by a casual listener, but strengthens the song as a whole. The first verse ends, and a syncopated beat, led by Tyler Williams on drums and Chris Zasche on bass, kicks in. Now, there is nothing about this moment in the song that punches you in the face, but it’s a solid groove, something that is usually absent in folk music. Then there’s the short breakdown, where the three-part vocal harmony really shows its face. And near the end of the song (which lasts under 2 minutes) is a time change (that occurs twice), which not only fits well, but gives the song an interesting twist. This is just the first track, but it sets the tone and expectations for the rest of the album, which does not disappoint.
The second song, “Coeur D’alene,” flows so smoothly from “Cats and Dogs” I swore they were the same song during my first listen. There is no break in feel or tempo between the two, keeping the listener’s attention during the transition. The big difference between the two is that Russell is no longer singing lead, but instead we hear Josiah Johnson’s voice driving the song. Russell and Thielen, however, are not silent, harmonizing with Johnson throughout most of the song. Once again, the three blend so perfectly together, they only sound distinct if you pay close attention. Two other parts of this song standout. The first is the emergence of the electric guitar, which adds color with thoughtful, simple lines, and does not dominate the music. The other is the outro of the song, which has a change in tempo and has Russell back on lead, but flows so perfectly from the first part that it sounds expected.
Another song that stands out, and may be the most powerful song on the entire album, is “Rivers and Roads.” This song is all about the vocals. While Josiah Johnson is technically the lead singer on the song, the beauty and power lies in the harmonies. And they are beautiful. Hell, they are some of the best harmonies I’ve heard in a long time. The other marvelous part of the song is that we get to hear Charity Thielen sing solo, and damn does she have a fantastic, distinct voice. Understated, a little gravely, but extremely powerful. She doesn’t belt, she sings, and with passion. And this song is full of passion and emotion. Not only do the vocals emit this feeling, but also the music. Kenny Hensley’s piano playing is all over the album, but it shines on this song. It not only adds color to the song, but it paints a picture. Tyler Williams’ drumming is emotional and dynamic, and leaves space in all the right places. Chris Zasche’s bass playing lays such a solid foundation, that it’s likely to be overlooked (this is an incredibly good thing). The three together, set such a powerful, beautiful backdrop to the other three’s vocal prowess, that you can almost see what they are singing. This song is fantastic, and is the centerpiece (literally and figuratively) of the album.
There is no denying that the Head and the Heart are extremely talented, and are deserving of all the attention they are getting (they’ve opened for the likes of Vampire Weekend, My Morning Jacket, and Death Cab for Cutie). Their first album is a gem, and has set the bar extremely high. Whether they can hit the mark again on subsequent recordings is something that we can only guess, but I am optimistic they will. I just hope I can see them live before they become huge.
(Special thanks to Diana E. for introducing me to this band.)