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Pop music review: The Head and the Heart

A set at the Music Box shows that the Seattle band needs to let its folk-rock run freer.

October 15, 2011|By August Brown, Los Angeles Times
  • Josiah Johnson, left, and Jonathan Russell of the Head and the Heart at the Music Box in Hollywood on Oct. 13.
Josiah Johnson, left, and Jonathan Russell of the Head and the Heart at the… (Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles…)

For the last song of the Head and the Heart's set at the Music Box on Thursday, "Rivers and Roads," the band slowed down to a tense build. The acoustic guitars took on a head of stream, the low-tuned drums pounded like a distant, gathering storm.

Finally, at the big payoff crescendo, singer-violinist Charity Rose Thielen took the mic and ripped off a Southern-soul shout that seemed to come from a wholly new well of primal, musical joy for the band. The Music Box crowd went ballistic.

That was the night's best moment for the Seattle band, and also its big problem. Thielen isn't the band's lead singer. And her curtain-dropping fireworks were far and away the high point of bloodletting in its very capable but very rustic-glossy (yes, that's a thing now) set.

The Head and the Heart is the latest harmony-rich folk-rock band to achieve national renown on the indie label Sub Pop, which had previous successes in the same genre with Iron & Wine and Fleet Foxes.

Those two other bands offer contrasts in how to make that template your own. Iron and Wine went off the deep end to great effect, incorporating Afro-pop, free jazz and baby-making soft rock into its domestic-gothic songwriting. The younger, woolier Fleet Foxes, however, doubled down on CSNY big-harmony impulses and spun its wheels a bit on its last mega-selling album, "Helplessness Blues."

On its self-titled debut and at the Music Box, the Head and the Heart took the latter route, often walking right up to the ledge of an interesting deconstruction of the folk-rock genre, then pulling back to sepia-hued safety. Something — perhaps some kind of writer's block toward a truly devastating lyric — kept them from truly going there. Until the very end.

The band's more-or-less lead singer, Josiah Johnson, is a very tall, very thin and very good-looking frontman for the band's songs. And the songs are thoroughly realized. Opener "Cats and Dogs" subverted its Eagles-ish construction with some unexpected time changes that showed off the band's kinetic skill onstage. Drummer Tyler Williams is their secret weapon — he knows how to play for dynamics and arrangements rather than just as a backbeat.

But the band relies too often on its road-honed live chops than on compelling writing. Peers like Mumford and Sons and the Civil Wars can, like the Head and the Heart, play the dickens out of their instruments. But they always let a perfect lyric or melodic turn guide the way. Maybe the Head and the Heart rose too quickly, because songs like "Honey Come Home" and "Winter Song," while perfectly efficient, miss the spine-tingle of the genre revival's best — "I'll miss the days we had" is not a hugely revealing refrain no matter how pristinely delivered. Maybe they can start by making Thielen sing lead more often.

Openers Thao with the Get Down Stay Down went for a much more lo-fi and jerky version of folk-pop that relied on singer Thao Nguyen's yelpy charisma. A slight singer, she showed her claws during a short set of punkish yet occasionally wispy bedroom rock, and reveled in her Kill Rock Stars pedigree.

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