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.