The Head and the Heart was the first show I saw in D.C. In my first few months here, my homesickness made me come across to some as a snobbish New Yorker. But I didn’t (and I don’t) think New York is superior. I simply missed the feverish pace, the verticality of the concrete and steel, and the tidal waves of humanity that surrounded me with faces and stories, and made me feel less alone and more a part of a story in the making. When a new coworker (and now one of my besties) introduced me to The Head and the Heart (THATH), I found it to be the perfect new music for someone looking for home.
The Seattle folk-rock band takes the melancholy of Americana and gives it an injection of upbeat, propulsive energy with Tyler Williams’ dynamic drumming and Kenny Hensley’s bright keyboard counterpoints. The themes of their songs are not expansive, but there’s a depth and soulfulness to the music that penetrates the heart. Josiah Johnson, Jonathan Russell, and Charity Rose Thielen weave their voices together in sweet, sad harmonies about leaving home and looking for home, about friends who part ways, and about realizing that we were always already home where we feel loved.
I saw The Head and the Heart at Ram’s Head (Baltimore, MD) in March 2012 and at the 9:30 Club in June of the same year. At the time, they had just one album out. I was hooked by the delicacy of “Winter Song,” the sing-along vibrancy of “Lost In My Mind,” the foreboding keyboard intro to “Ghosts,” and the gorgeousness in the high register of Charity’s voice, almost wailing in homesickness, in “Rivers and Roads” (there’s a reason why the audience cheers when she belts out those lines).
I liked THATH so much that I was nervous about their second album–what if, after a debut that delivered song after lovely song, THATH had exhausted their creative reservoirs and what follows, disappoints? And so when “Let’s Be Still,” the band’s sophomore effort, arrived in my mailbox last month, I stared at the album photos with some trepidation before popping the CD in.
I shouldn’t have let the doubts in my head interfere with the conviction in my heart that this Seattle sextet would continue to make me smile with their lush arrangements and narratives that remain optimistic, despite being shadowed by some world-weariness.
The album starts off strong with “Homecoming Heroes” — a song perfect for the season when football teams face off and we think back to those high school homecoming rituals. “I’m sorry but I find no glory in that,” Jonathan sings–“I just want you off my back.” Is he referring to the pressure of their meteoric rise from coffeeshops to sold-out shows? What I take from the lyrics is the acknowledgment of an insatiable, sometimes destructive appetite for success–people “want a story, one ending in glory.”
The album has many gems. One of my faves is “Another Story.”
“Can we go on, as it once was?” query Charity’s violin and Jonathan’s vocals. The song was written after the Newtown shootings and combines fragility with a determination to overcome. The flickering, almost tentative beginning of the song gives way to sturdy harmonies, bookended by assertive percussion–“the sun still rises, even with the pain.”
When I saw THATH last week at the 9:30 Club, I chatted between sets with a photographer for a DC lifestyle blog. He remarked that he had purposefully not listened to the second album yet because the first was so laden with memories that he wanted to hear the new songs live. He and his friends had listened to THATH on repeat, he elaborated. Then in the following months, his friends moved away, one by one, as is the way with this city of transients.
“So many of the songs are about friends leaving,” he remarked. True, I thought, but then I offered a slight variation –“maybe it’s about finding home again, finding home in our friends.” I was tired and inarticulate, but what I was thinking of was the lines from Verghese’s novel, “Cutting for Stone,” when a character boards a flight and thinks to herself (I’m quoting from memory, so please forgive any inaccuracies), “Isn’t that the definition of home? Not where you are from, but where you are wanted?”
This is the magic of THATH–their music reminds us of friends, of family, of finding home. And how appropriate, that “Down In the Valley” was the final song of the encore last Monday night. “I am on my way back to where I started.”