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Headlights depart down a darker path

October 26, 2009

October 6, 2009

Rating: 7.2/10

In order to write this review I had to take a step backwards.

I had to go to a place where I was not a fan.

When I pressed play it had to be as an impartial observer, not someone who has enjoyed countless Headlights performances.

The first time I listened I didn’t step back, and I wasn’t especially pleased with the outcome. It just sounded different than past Headlights albums, and my aversion to change was overwhelming.

Wildlife is an interesting foray into new musical waters for the Champaign quartet partly because of the lineup changes that occured during recording. Singer/keyboardist Erin Fein described the album as “darker,” and after a few good listens I began to understand what she meant.

Headlights’ albums always give a good mixture of fast and slow songs, whether it’s the full-tilt boogie of “Lions” or the mellow thoughtfulness of “Some Racing, Some Stopping” the foursome always seems to produce good-feeling music.

This latest album, however, delves deeper into the inner feelings of the band, and gives an glimpse of some raw emotion.

There is a feeling of angst that creeps into a few of the songs, none more so than “Dead Ends,” in which Fein and guitarist/singer Tristan Wraight harmonize sweetly over friends who are too busy growing up to be there in a time of need. Fein’s insistence to know on “Secrets” (“Could you tell me?” she questions repeatedly) also bears a sense of foreboding and unease.

Perhaps at their darkest, Headlights still manage to create a song that elicits toe-tapping and sing-alongs. This may be due to the fact that with their brand of chamber pop it’s hard to stray too far from what makes it so endearing: bouncy, sunny anthems that spread smiles like swine flu across anyone in close contact.

Some of the most cheery songs on the album are “We’re All Animals” and “I Don’t Mind At All.” The former is a song to grow with. It builds, slowly at first, but capitulates in a beautiful crescendo that will have you repeating the chorus all day long. The latter, on the other hand, sets its hook right from the first note. It’s unbridled exuberance could brighten even the darkest of days.

The harmonies created on Wildlife are a bit different than what is usual for the band, and it creates a new layer within their diverse sound. Where either singer would typically take the lead in the past, this album finds the two working cooperatively. It is a fresh take on their vocal style and I feel like the harmony really works. The delicate, almost whispered vocal style that the singers are able to create compliment each other well.

The standout single on this album is “Get Going,” and while it has it’s positives, it does not posses the same star-power as past singles like “TV” or “Cherry Tulips.”

Headlights have always been good at creating hooks, but this album just falls short of finding that lasting hook over multiple songs.

On their last full length, Some Racing, Some Stopping, songs like “Market Girl” and “Catch Them All” provided the backbone to the single-worthy songs. Wildlife seems to be all backbone holding nothing up.

Stepping back in to my position as a Headlights enthusiast, I can tell you that I love this album. The truth is, however, that this album is good, but not great.

Wildlife is a “deep album cuts” kind of release. It’s not the “all killer, no filler” record that the Beatles made time and time again.

Of course, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Looking back, Weezer’s seminal classic Pinkerton was widely panned upon its release in 1996 but is now considered to be a work of genius.

Wildlife has the kind of potential to be a real hit in a few months or years, though I wouldn’t say it has Pinkerton potential. Right now, though, it’s a dreamy little chamber pop composition that marks where Headlights are right now. For that reason, it’s good and I’ll keep on enjoying this album and this band.

Get Going

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