Be Still, Be Calm
Let’s Be Still is a paradoxically appropriate name for the sophomore album from Seattle’s The Head and The Heart. The band won a record deal with Sub Pop after its 2009 self-titled, self-released debut essentially went viral, winning the band opening spots for big-name acts like Vampire Weekend, Death Cab for Cutie and The Decemberists. Let’s Be Still does show the band growing and developing their sound in new directions, but in a rather calm way, almost as if the album is carried along by a pleasant but unexciting inertia.
The album begins with “Homecoming Heroes,” which immediately establishes the band’s movement to a fuller, lusher sound. Warm piano, guitar and violins interweave with a minor tinge around Josiah Johnson and Jonathan Russell’s vocal harmonies, accompanied by a banjo that pops up in the chorus. The song seems to be meant as a big opening statement, a grand gesture of nostalgia—and it almost gets there. But it’s just not as rousing as the band’s older material like “Down in the Valley.” This song, like “Shake” and “Another Story,” cater to the mainstream, pop/folk crowd of Mumford and Sons. “Another Story” has a rich, well-polished texture, with full keys and a light, tinkling guitar and the title track is much the same. There’s nothing wrong with this sound, and in fact it’s quite pleasant, but what would make it really interesting would be the raw emotional intensity and the slightly rough, unvarnished folk of the band’s debut.
There is still some of this down-home, more traditional folk on Let’s Be Still: the acoustic “Josh McBride” combines finger-picked guitars, strings and banjo with the band’s excellent choral vocals and narrative lyricism, and “10,000 Weight in Gold” has a similar charm. The album’s strongest moments, though, are on “Cruel” and “These Days Are Numbered.” “Cruel” is an opulent piano ballad with steel guitar and sweeping strings, where the vocals finally get a little raw. “I tried being cruel,” Johnson sings, “but it’s just not in me / It’s just not in you.” On “These Days Are Numbered,” you can hear a rougher, less polished acoustic guitar and harmonica with violinist Charity Rose Thielen’s vulnerable, sonorous voice.
In a completely different vein, The Head and The Heart also experiment with a new electro sound on the record. The upbeat “Summertime” features springy guitars and bright synths along with Thielen’s lush alto, eschewing folk. “Fire / Fear,” likewise, has a big, electronic sound, trading banjos and acoustic guitars for spacey synths.
While Let’s Be Still comes off as a little lethargic at times, it still proves that The Head and The Heart have a knack for songwriting and a commitment to growing and evolving their sound. Perhaps they just need a little time to regain the energy and dynamism that won over audiences on their debut.