A word of mouth success if ever there was one, Seattle’s The Head and The Heart funded and released their self-titled debut themselves, and following endless gigging and support slots for Vampire Weekend and, um, The Dave Matthews Band, they were picked up by Sub Pop – yet another example of the label leaving behind their grungy past and embracing all things folky - who re-released The Head and the Heart in the wake of folk music becoming the soundtrack to dinner parties all across the country.
To criticise The Head and the Heart for taking advantage of Sub Pop’s offer (the record is out on Heavenly in the UK) would be churlish, but the success and acclaim afforded to the band is an example of the number of bands basking in the reflected glow of the likes of Noah and the Whale and Mumford & Sons, who both trade in a dull, watered-down version of “olden time” music. This is music that peddles a kind of dusty authenticity but is betrayed by the cold commerciality of the end product. This isn’t to say that there’s not positive moments on the album, as there is some fine musicianship and a handful of fine songs, but there’s a lack of heart and soul that makes me think it’s a cynical stab at a “current” market.
Focusing on the positives, which means glossing over the short and annoyingly upbeat opener ‘Cats and Dogs’ complete with samples of, wait for it, animals yelping, and the equally sunny ‘Couer D’Alene’ which also suffers from an eminently punchable jaunty piano refrain which is far too high up in the mix to be remotely enjoyable, we light upon the more downbeat ‘Ghosts’, which shows off the excellent harmonies of vocalists Jonathan Russell and Josiah Johnson, and then ’Down in the Valley’, a track that that features both the best and worst of the band. Lyrically, it’s at best misguided, and completely offensive at worst: “I wish I was a slave to an age-old trade / like riding around on railcars and working long days”. Surely one of the band must have expressed some reservations at such “good old days” observations? Having said that, the music in the song is lovely, with Charity Thielen’s violin and backing vocals stealing the show, and there’s genuine passion at work here. Still, those lyrics….
‘Rivers and Roads’ begins as a stripped-backed acoustic guitar track before building to a euphoric ending, made more enjoyable by Thielen’s vocals, and she should really be allowed to sing more leads on any future records The Head and the Heart might make. ‘Honey Come Home’ again trades well on three-part harmonies, tarnished slightly though by that piano (Kenny Hensley is the man responsible), but just about manages to ride it out for the duration of the track.
However, there are more moments of blandness to be had before the album is over, with ‘Lost in My Mind’ being a middle of the road disaster, ‘Winter Song’ belonging to the BBC Radio 2 playlist, and ‘Sounds Like Halleljuah’ being ruined by a complete lack of soul, but ‘Heaven Go Easy On Me’ is a nice enough final track to be able to end on a high.
The Head and the Heart is too anodyne and polished, too commercialised to stand a chance of making any true connection. Sure, the harmonies are lovely but the instrumentation is too trad and the arrangements uninspiring, and would someone please sack the piano player? Praise must go to the band for making it thus far off their own dime and hard work, but if they really want to grab listeners, it’s time to forget the perspiration and try a little inspiration.