Is The Head and the Heart a relic of bygone years? Not decades past, but like, two years ago? Let’s Be Still, the second album from the Seattle neo-folk band, is being released on the tail end of its genre’s moment in the sun.
Acts with even greater ambitions of accessibility, such as Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers, are at the top of the pop music heap right now, and their style has had its cover blown for a while now, revealing the genre as less of a throwback and more of a stale trend.
One band shouldn’t be judged based on the genre that surrounds it, and the quantity of similar stuff out there has attracted some ire. The new record has a lot of questions to answer — many of them unfair — after the rags-to-riches success of The Head and the Heart’s debut. But it’s a new year and a new album, and coming with it is the opportunity for the band to move past being a face in the bearded-and-suspendered crowd.
Most of the band’s defining features return on its sophomore release: Lead vocals split or shared between three of its members, unpredictable song structures and earnest performance. The instrumental mix is once again warm and inviting, even with the (limited) addition of electric guitar and synthesizer.
“Another Story” is an early highlight. It’s a song about bad news: “I wish it was all a dream,” Jonathan Russell sings, over simple guitar licks and piano lines. The song begins steadily, pauses and ends in a big swell.
The album’s lead single is “Shake,” which the band performed on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon last week. It’s the most raucous, upbeat track on the record, with stomps and claps the whole way through.
The debut album is littered with unrealized ideas, but it often reaches heights that are electric: for instance, the slick opener “Cats and Dogs” and the emotionally piercing “Lost in My Mind.” Despite being less immediate, Let’s Be Still is a more consistent effort. The duds are few and far between, and with the added instruments, it’s a modest step forward.
But how, really, is a folk band supposed to progress from folk? It’s a pretty insular genre. Another Seattle folk rock act, Fleet Foxes, began with a broader palette and was able to pare it down, at will, to its minimum; moving the opposite direction are folk songsters Iron & Wine and The Tallest Man on Earth, who have both steadily expanded their sound with each new release. Electric guitar might be The Head and the Heart’s ladder out of the neo-folk pigeonhole. The band uses it here, but not in a way that stretches its existing sound.
Let’s Be Still is suggestive, but not convincing, that The Head and the Heart is a keeper.