If you’re looking for a song to unwind to after a rough day or one to play on repeat when the weather is taking too damn long to warm up, look no further than “Down In the Valley” by Seattle newcomers The Head and the Heart. The song is nothing short of a religious experience when you hear it at the right time. It’s a song you can’t help but sing along to – one that expresses feelings you didn’t even know you felt but are glad you discovered. Starting with an unassuming guitar melody and progressively sped up and fleshed out with strings and pulsing percussion, the song is one hell of an anthem. And by the time frontman Josiah Johnson finishes the song, whispering the opening lines “I wish I was a slave to an age-old trade, like riding around on railcars and working long days,” you know exactly what he means even if you had no idea when he sang it the first time.
The Head and the Heart specialize in this kind of elegant transformation of sorrow into cathartic joy, and they’ve put it to record on their self-titled debut filled with Americana folk tunes. They have an incredible knack for harmonizing vocals and building momentum, as newest track “Lost in My Mind” attests. This is mostly due to the nicely juxtaposed vocals of Johnson and violinist Charity Thielen as well as drummer Tyler Williams’ ear for timing and talent with a tambourine.
When they’re at their best, their exquisitely layered soundscapes and pitch-perfect execution can mask the fact that these guys (and gal) just met. They hooked up randomly at a Seattle open-mic night two years ago. Stars in alignment, the band witnessed a meteoric rise fueled by chemistry and passion. In no time, they were opening for the likes of Vampire Weekend, and their debut’s reissue now has Sub Pop’s stamp of approval.
One of the band’s unique talents lies in creating a participatory listening experience. Their songs are filled with sing-along choruses and verses that make you unconsciously tap your toes or nod your head. This quality is best paired with their enthusiastic live shows, and they have yet to learn how to capture all of the magic in the studio.
Plenty of that magic is captured, though, and themes of youthful uncertainty are beautifully interpreted in tracks like the fragile ballad “Rivers and Roads” and alt-country charmer “Winter Song.” Highlight track “Sounds Like Hallelujah” sees the band experiment with sectional tempo change-ups, while detailing the deterioration of a relationship – all of which they pull off seamlessly.
It’s refreshing when such genuine talent sees correlative success, but sometimes the lack of collaborative experience translates to a lack of identity. The awkward, piano-driven shuffle of “Coeur d’Alene” and gothic vaudeville of “Ghosts” are valiant efforts but don’t play to the group’s strengths. “My roots are grown, but I don’t know where they are,” Johnson sings on opener “Cats and Dogs,” perfectly capturing the sextet’s conundrum. There’s undeniable depth here but little self-awareness in terms of who they are as a band. If they stick to the melodic folk at the core of their best songs, that fateful open-mic night could be the beginning of something really great.