Album Reviews

The Head And The Heart – Let’s Be Still

(Sub Pop) UK release date: 3 March 2014

The Head And The Heart - Let's Be Still Look at that album cover. Are those not the faces of contentment? Let that image stick in your mind when listening to Let’s Be Still, the second LP from Seattle six-piece The Head And The Heart.

The band is the creative outlet of Californian Josiah Johnson and Virginian Jonathan Russell, who hired several other musicians from the Seattle area to round out the operation. They play indie folk rock with violins and gentle guitar arpeggios that evoke either member’s mountainous homeland.

Johnson’s West Coast early ’90s alt-rock arrangements are tempered by Russell’s Appalachian harmonies and folk instruments akin to the alt-country approach of fellow Seattleites Campfire OK. Johnson, Russell, and violinist Charity Rose Thielen form a boy/girl singing trifecta that shares intimate stories of messy relationships, enjoying the little things, and all of those little early 20s holy-hell-I’m-a-grown-up moments, as seen on Another Story.

Such stories and their respective arrangements are extremely effective – in a world where “twee” has become a naughty word associated with poorly-managed guitars and obnoxiously put-on accents, such refined, cohesive songs are refreshing. Josh McBride, in particular, is a gorgeous, heartfelt ballad and is easily one of the strongest moments on the album, coming across as a modernized take on a Bruce Springsteen tearjerker from his Nebraska album.

The best songs coalesce Johnson’s West Coast style with Russell’s Appalachian upbringing rather than allowing one influence or the other to dominate the track. The rockier songs are awkward and the folkier ones are insincere. These Days Are Numbered feels like an unfinished b-side in comparison to the stellar Josh McBride, and Cruel has a bit too much croon that feels too put-on to be entirely effective.

However, tracks like Homecoming Heroes, Summertime, and the closer Gone are representations of the genre-bending game at its finest. Homecoming Heroes begins with some of the best piano chords in recent indie rock output, and they perfectly establish the milieu of the album. Summertime is a true highlight, showcasing Thielen’s powerful range and Americana accent. The waltz time signatures and slowed-down chord progressions at the bridge bring to mind half-drunken escapades at bonfires on the beach. Thielen’s pastoral violin work over the last two and a half minutes of Gone begs for a YouTube montage of the best times with best friends and is a lovely closer to an album that has already shown its heart several times over.

The Head And The Heart don’t completely escape the trappings of indie onanism – the title track is a bit too self-absorbed, which is disappointing since the message of oneness with oneself gets lost. My Friends falls the same way, starting out with lyricism that sounds like a shout-out to John Lennon’s “Imagine” but more audaciously forward – “There’s no such thing as love / there’s no such thing as God / there’s no such thing as you / there’s no such thing as us / and tell me friends / when I’m down, would you pick me up?” It’s a nice idea and the song even has a bouncy piano backing to emulate the happiness of togetherness, but it’s a little too cringe-worthy for the sentiment to stick. The Head And The Heart trip over themselves by trying hard to seem like they aren’t really trying that hard.

Let’s Be Still asks the listener to do just that – be still, rest a bit, and let the world wash over. The album is cozy, if occasionally pedantic, and it makes for good springtime music. The songs look forward to the next adventure, but leave no space for the future to occupy the now – what matters most is simply the act of everyday existence in all its mundane glory. Let’s Be Still is for lying in the grass on a cold Sunday morning, feeling the world turn beneath you, and thinking about all the things that you still have left to do that day.

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