November 4, 2013 / 8:44 pm

The Head & the Heart – Let’s Be Still

Released: 10/15/2013

5/7 stars


Second albums are hard. Particularly when your debut album was as successful as the Head and the Heart’s. By now, we’ve all heard their story: a small Seattle indie-folk band self-releasing their album, touring relentlessly behind it, finally getting picked up by major indie label Sub Pop, and becoming a national sensation. So where does a band that got real big real fast go for their second album? Do they do more of the same and face diminishing returns (a la the Strokes) or should they attempt something completely different and risk alienating their fan base? The Head and the Heart chose to do a bit of both, making Let’s Be Still an enjoyable listen.

THATH’s opener “Homecoming Heroes” could have been on their debut album. This song is a perfect example of the benefits real studio time and production values provide. The drum rolls are cavernous, the background vocals shimmer, the acoustic guitars pristine. Singer Jon Russell’s voice is fantastically gruff. The band’s songwriting acumen has expanded, exemplified by the major-to-minor transitions found throughout the song. This track is foreshadows the awesomeness of the rest of Let’s Be Still.

The second single, “Another Story,” is absolutely gorgeous. It features a finger-picked guitar line, underscored by subtle electric guitar counterpoints. The band said this song is about the recent Newtown, Connecticut shootings. When Russell combines with singers Charity Thielen and Josiah Johnson to croon “Can we go on like it once was?”, the result is simultaneously desolating and uplifting. It is an album highlight.

Fan-favorite Thielen is featured as lead vocalist on “Springtime/Summertime” and “These Days Are Numbered.” It’s a welcome change to hear her leading some songs. “Springtime/Summertime” is undoubtedly the biggest musical departure the band took. Thielen’s distinct voice bounces over a synthpop groove, while strangely 80s synthesizers add texture and a decidedly “WTF” factor to the song. This song’s departure from THATH’s original sound is jarring, but this variety and experimentation is nice to see from them. “These Days” is a meditation on the fleeting nature of life. It features nothing but Thielen’s vocals, a sole acoustic guitar, and a devastating harmonica line to end the song.

Josiah Johnson takes the lead on “Josh McBride” and “Fire/Fear.” The latter is a strange, atmospheric song that, despite its decidedly mellow feel, seems more out of context than Thielen’s “Summertime.” The looping electric guitar line sounds dated, and the song is only saved by Johnson’s strong delivery. “McBride” is a slow-burning acoustic ballad that slowly spills over into its beautiful harmonic chorus. This is where Johnson excels; his vocals are weathered and confident on this track.

Let’s Be Still’s first single, “Shake,” is another a departure for the band. It’s a barnstorming, foot-stomping lead single that features Russell’s take on adultery. “You won’t forget the one who’s making you shake,” he cries before the song climaxes with the band’s harmonies soar over the driving rhythm. “Shake” is one of the album’s gems.

The title track (“Let’s Be Still”), “My Friends”, and “10,000 Weight in Gold” are a solid trio of songs. A steel guitar line punctuates the title track and gives it a countrified vibe, creating a interesting sound. “My Friends” begins with an overdramatic line (“There’s no such thing as love, there’s no such thing as God”) before redeeming itself in a fun sing-a-long chorus. “10,000 Weight in Gold” is great, but gets lost this far into the record.

Album closer “Gone” is Let’s Be Still’s perfect finale. A sprawling, epic six-and-a-half minute song about lost love, the song crescendos along, hitting different points along the way. Russell’s impassioned vocals plead, “Don’t send me no postcards, tell me you miss me/cause I’m trying” as harmonies build. When the song climaxes at the end it’s difficult not to get completely swept away in it.

Let’s Be Still is the sound of a band reacting against all that normally goes wrong with a second album. There’s more of what made them big on their first album, and there’s some stuff you wouldn’t necessarily expect from a band like The Head and the Heart. It makes for a satisfying listening experience while simultaneously stating that THATH will not be a one-album band.

—Sam Velaquez

Reach Sam at sjvelazq@indiana.edu or follow him on twitter @SammyVMan