The Head and The Heart [Self-Titled]
Cameron Barham tells us why he loved THATH’s debut and looks forward to their upcoming record!Cameron Barham
out of 10
The Head and The Heart
April 19, 2011
The Head and the Heart have released their self-titled debut on Sub Pop Records after garnering a significant amount of attention based on their energetic live shows and self-released record made up of all but “Rivers and Roads.” My introduction to this band was through live videos for “Rivers and Roads” and “Lost in My Mind” which were absolutely captivating. I can’t wait to see them live. If you have not heard of this band, you will very soon. Their first major label release is an excellent album from start to finish. Their sound and writing style is comparable to Josh Ritter, Hem, the Jayhawks, the Avett Brothers, and Mumford and Sons, yet they manage to carve out their own style which will only get better as the band matures. It is rare these days that albums are consistent and worth listening to from start to finish making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. I genuinely like all 10 tracks on this record and would recommend that the whole record be purchased so that it could be enjoyed in its proper context.
The production and sound is superb overall. The lone production misstep is the cat and dog sound that accompanies the same reference in “Cats and Dogs.” I have to show my cards in admitting that I don’t like things that could be classified as cute which would describe the inclusion of the aforementioned noises. I also think that it breaks up the consistency and is briefly distracting which is ultimately forgivable. The dynamic within and between songs gives the album a great pace moving easily from song to song complimenting their content perfectly. This quality makes The Head and the Heart an excellent soundtrack for an uninterrupted, reflective road trip.
The songs are primarily driven by the piano work of Kenny Hensley, Tyler Williams’ percussion, and driving bass played by Chris Zasche. The musicianship overall is solid and safe. There are no ridiculous guitar riffs or odd computerized, synthesized noises or artsy avant-garde time signatures. The harmonies and melodies that are triangulated between Jonathan Russell, Josiah Johnson, and Charity Rose Thielen are tastefully done and compliment each other beautifully. This is best displayed on “Down in the Valley” and “Rivers and Roads.” While they are not breaking any new ground here (though they do slip in some glockenspiel for spice most noticeable on “Sounds Like Hallelujah”), the record has a comfortable, well-worn feel that causes the listener to return again and again as to a companion that they enjoy talking with long into the night.
The lyrics are accessible but probing telling a loosely connected story into which the listener is invited to participate. Though I am partial to more intricate metaphors, I found myself digging deeper into what each song communicates with each subsequent listen finding a number of lyrical gems. There appears to be an overall theme that runs through The Head and the Heart that wrestles with what is left behind in the prodigal pursuit of the heart that is prone to wander and the grace and reconciliation that is needed to call where that journey leads home. I see the first three tracks as a form of introduction / prologue to this aural journey. The opening track “Cats and Dogs” highlights the essence of this move from the safety of family and identity in where one is from to the painful journey of becoming a new, autonomous creation: “Fallin’ from the sky, there are raindrops in my eyes, and my thoughts are diggin’ in the backyard. My roots have grown but I don’t know where they are.” This leads into the gentle lament “Coeur d’ Alene” (a city in Idaho) which hauntingly proclaims: “Wearily waitin’ on the wastin’ of his day. A sad-sodden, smoldering soul. Give you three bucks for your sympathy, and another for a cigarette. The interaction feels so cold.” The journey continues in “Ghost” that begins with heavier, minor piano chords that match the lyrical mood that struggles with friends who talk of leaving home only to remain stagnant in their own graves and with family that fails to see any real change or distinct identity in their native child. The music and the lyrics transition to a note of hope as “One day we’ll all be found. No longer lost, we’re just hangin’ around. One day we’ll all be found” is joyfully declared to close out the song. This highlights the hope that must be clung to despite the uncertainty that exists during the transformation between the now and the not-yet.
The journey begins in earnest with the chronicles of “Down in the Valley.” I see line “I wish I was a slave to an age-old trade” as poor word choice. To be fair, I could be judging it too harshly based on my own emotional response to the use of the term slave since I am a Southerner. Even with that being said, it is a beautiful song that admits to hiding out among taverns and other shadowy places requiring the plea: “Lord have mercy on my rough and rowdy ways.” “Rivers and Roads” compliments the previous track well and is the first track in which Charity’s vocals are featured as she achingly declares the various obstacles: “Rivers and roads, rivers and roads, rivers till I reach you.” The next track, “Honey Come Home,” is the most relationally reflective. A wayward lover is called to return by the repentant lover who cries out: “Oh God I love my vices, but they have taken me to places that I never thought I’d go, and I’m ready to be home. And I think of every spark, every whisper in the dark, now it’s time.” Too many of us have been scarred by this truth and know the pain of its admission.
The journey starts coming full circle in “Lost in My Mind.” The song opens with: “Put your dreams away for now, I won’t see you for some time. I am lost in my mind, I get lost in my mind. Momma once told me, you’re already home where you feel loved.” The tension between the head and the heart seems to be finding common ground. If I were pressed to pick my favorite track, this would be the one. It highlights all of this band’s strengths. “Winter Song” is excellently placed after as it slows the tempo and showcases each of the three singers who each take a verse singing longingly over a gently plucked guitar until the percussion adds dynamic in the third verse. The meaningful questions continue in the first verse: “Tell me somethin’, give me hope for the night. We don’t know how we feel. We’re just prayin’ that we’re doin’ this right. Though that’s not the way it seems.” Most heart-guided journeys lead us to places of great trial that makes it more of a painfully transformative odyssey than merely a light-hearted adventure. We also can resonate with hoping we are doing it right while feeling all too often like it is an exercise in futility.
The album concludes perfectly with “Sounds Like Hallelujah” and “Heaven Go Easy on Me.” The roots that were lost in the opening track are being discovered in “Sounds Like Hallelujah”: “I’m not walkin’ away. I’m just hearin’ what you’re sayin’ for the first time. Sounds like hallelujah for the first time.” The epiphany continues in “Heaven Go Easy on Me” as it is realized that life must have meaning and purpose though it need not be needlessly complex because of our desires and mistakes. The album ends appropriately with: “We’re well on our way. We’re well on our way. All these things are rushin’ by me, all these things are rushin’ by me. All things must end darlin’, all things must end darlin’. Oh heaven go easy on me.”
I look forward to what this band has to offer in the future as they mature as songwriters and musicians. But until then, I will continue to enjoy their first offering which satisfies. If you are in Atlanta on Wednesday, September 21st, you can catch them live at the Variety Playhouse. For a glimpse of this band’s gift, watch “Lost in My Mind” below. Enjoy!