Monday, March 31, 2008

KQED Music: Headlights - Some Racing, Some Stopping

Michael Stipe once said that REM's Fables of the Reconstruction sounded like "two oranges being nailed together." As well as being a great quote, it was also a joke (one missed by the journalist he was speaking to at the time, unfortunately). However, it made an important point: that trying to describe music in words is an essentially futile task.

Which is something that Some Racing, Some Stopping, the new album by Headlights, illustrates perfectly. The album was a bit of a guilty pleasure when I first heard it, as it seemed a little cutesy and lightweight. I was worried that it might turn out to be an Ikea record: attractive and enjoyable at first, but essentially an insubstantial piece of crap that was going to give way under the slightest pressure.

Then one day the sun came out, literally. And, just like in countless episodes of CSI, a little UV light revealed all. No, not blood splatter patterns or the dried crust of sordid sexual activities, but the realization that this was a SUMMER album. As the warmth of spring spread over San Francisco, those sweet boy-girl harmonies and pop hooks suddenly made perfect sense. From beginning to end, whether it's the effervescing pop of "Catch Them All," "Cherry Tulips," and "Market Girl," or the lullaby-like softness of the title track, the sunshine never stops.

But there's something else too, and that's where it gets complicated. There's a sadness, an aching melancholia behind the honeyed harmonies and hooks, but one that somehow feels good at the same time. It's sort of like the warmth of tears on cold cheeks, or perhaps the way even the most carefree Sunday is haunted by the Monday to come. Maybe it's the whispered promise of love that cannot possibly last beyond fall? Whatever it is, it feels delicious.

Even the "do doo-doo" backing vocals on "School Boys" (a perfect slice of pop if ever there was one) are broken up by wistful sighs of "aah," like a pinch of salt in caramel ice cream. Everywhere you turn, xylophones jingle like wind chimes in a light breeze while voices drenched in soft-focus reverb and faraway echo sing lines such as: "Wouldn't it be sort of strange if we could hear our hearts all beating at once?"

If you listen for it, that indescribable, indefinable sadness is present in much of the very best summer music. But how to adequately describe it? Occasionally, a new word will come along to help us, as Nick Cave has discovered by applying the concept of duende to the darkness at the heart of his own music (which is a far deeper, blacker thing than the thing I am trying to describe here). But for now there doesn't seem to be any easy literary equivalent for the weird happysadness at the heart of the Headlights' shimmering pop.

Instead, you just need to wait for a suitably sunny moment, buy an ice cream, shed a few tears, and discover it for yourself.

'Some Racing, Some Stopping' is out now on Polyvinyl Records.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

KQED Music: The Heavenly States - Delayer

It's so easy for us to over think our reactions to new music. The first time we hear a track or album, only one question should really matter: Is it any good? But, more realistically, the question we ask is "do I like it?" And, before we know it, our pet peeves and personal prejudices are getting involved, and we're well on the way to over thinking things.

For example, I have a terrible tendency to write off new artists unless they astonish me within the space of a single song, and/or sound incredibly different to anything I've heard before. Unfortunately, the first time I listened to Delayer, the new album by Oakland's The Heavenly States, it achieved neither. But it had arrived recommended, so I persevered. Then, a few days later, I found myself happily humming the bouncy hook to album opener "Morning Exercise" while I was doing the washing up, and I realized I had been smitten.

Of course, I'm not saying this album is about to rewrite musical history after all, only that it was unreasonable to condemn it out of hand for this reason alone. After all, even those few recordings that do arrive like an incredible bolt from the blue and sound as if they're going to turn the pop universe upside down, normally achieve something much, much less. Such as when I excitedly play some "amazing" new band to a friend, only to have them reply: "Oh, they just sound like [insert name of other, older, smugly obscure artist here]."

Instead of attempting to serve up a musical revolution, Delayer concentrates on simpler pleasures. In particular, the first three tracks pop out of the traps with a gleeful, driving rush that, after a few listens, is hard to resist. The album does lose a little momentum in the middle, but there is enough quality on either side of this flat spot to compensate.

Highlights include "Lost in the Light," which recalls the Velvet Underground circa Loaded, the slower-paced "Make Up," which breathes the same melancholic air as Jane's Addiction in their quieter moments, and "The System," which is propelled by the kind of squalling guitar riff that would have rocked just as hard in any decade out of the past five, but sounds none the worse for it. In fact, this is probably one of the keys to the band's charm. Like The Raconteurs (to pick another recent example), they aren't doing anything particularly new, they're just doing it well. And, of course, it also helps that Ted Nesseth sings as if he was ordained to front a rock band from birth.

It's probably no coincidence that The Heavenly States remind me of a few other pop-edged indie outfits I grew to appreciate despite some initial misgivings. These include The Shins (although with a bit more balls, which is no bad thing), Razorlight (particularly at the start of "Pretty Life") and The Dandy Warhols.

In fact, this last example seems the most apt. When Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia came out, I was working in an office with a stereo that seemingly had no "off" button, and just two volume settings: loud and louder. Once I got used to the noise levels, I discovered this arrangement offered two great benefits. The first was the Pepsi-challenge "blind taste test" effect; that is, hearing new music without first knowing who it's by, which removed a great deal of personal prejudice from the equation. And the second was that even if I didn't like something straight away, the chances were that someone else did, and I'd end up hearing it a few more times before my opinions hardened enough to complain.

Of course, the down side was ending up in a conversation that started with me explaining to a work colleague precisely why I'd always hated The Dandy Warhols and then going on to ask what was playing on the stereo because I really liked it. I'm sure you can guess the rest.

The Heavenly States' record release party is at The Independent in San Francisco on March 7, 2008.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.