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.
The government is open for business again! In celebration of the return to normalcy — or what passes for “normal” in these mad times — I think we all need a little David Wax Museum. Polarizing rhetoric is rending the nation, with tea-sodden reactionaries warning of the death of democracy. In response to that movement’s antagonism toward immigrants (I mean, really?), I offer the sonic syncretism that is David Wax Museum’s music, which draws from American and Mexican folk traditions to create something that is more than the sum of its parts.
A while back, I was chatting with a friend who had not heard of The Lumineers. I directed him to “Stubborn Love” and “Flowers In Your Hair,” and after giving the band a listen, he asked if I knew David Wax Museum. I didn’t. And I had been missing out on what NPR’s Bob Boilen aptly calls “pure, irresistible joy”.
Before I launch into an exposition of the awesomeness of this band, I’ll provide a little context. I tend to react to new music in one of two ways. The songs that immediately get stuck in my head (think “Blurred Lines”) tend to lose their appeal after a few weeks. The music that takes more work at first — for instance, Alt-J’s intricate, morphing textures, or Bon Iver’s falsetto murmurings of impenetrable lyrics — ends up rewarding my effort by revealing an unfamiliar but gorgeous soundscape.
It’s not often that a band falls in the overlapping space on the Venn diagram of my short- and long-term music fixations. But David Wax Museum was both love at first listen and a love that has, so far, withstood the test of time. Initially, I was hooked by their Appalachia-meets-Veracruz rhythms and harmonies, and the accordion-pumping, jarana-strumming exuberance. But the more I listen, the more I am drawn to this rich tapestry of American folk and Mexicon son, with sprinklings of rock (the electric guitar makes an appearance in their latest album). There is an infectious joy in David Wax’s singing and Suz Slezak’s harmonies combined with fiddle-playing and quijada-rattling.
Thursday found me cloistered in a Midwestern hotel room preparing for a court hearing. Complete silence is oppressive, but I can’t work with a TV or radio on. Solution: play Jake Bugg’s “Trouble Town” on repeat. Sometime between dusk and dawn, it occurred to me that this song has to be on my mix in honor (lamentation?) of the shutdown:
Stuck in speed bump city / Where the only thing that’s pretty / Is the thought of getting out.
Jake Bugg is a nineteen-year-old British singer-songwriter who has been compared to Bob Dylan (including by the friend who introduced me to Bugg’s music). But when I offer this comparison as a shorthand for describing Bugg’s sound to friends, I am met mostly with skepticism, even outright indignation: How could anyone compare anyone to the great Dylan, the pillar of Americana? I know you’re scoffing, but hear me out. I’m not saying the Nottingham teenager is the next Dylan. But I am saying that his warbling, rough-around-the-edges voice and world-weary lyrics combine to form something that is really quite special.
Yes, everyone sings about heartbreak and hard times. But Bugg has a knack for condensing a scene into a single line and weaving those lines into a story: “He’s down in the kitchen drinking White Lightning / He’s with my momma, they’re yelling and fighting / It’s not the first time praying for silence / Something is changing, changing, changing.”