Album review: ‘Let’s Be Still’ by The Head and the Heart

There’s really no other place that the six-piece band The Head and the Heart could hail from besides Seattle. Its particular take on subdued indie folk sounds like it was made to be listened to with a mug of something warm while watching a rainstorm outside the window. “The Head and the Heart,” its 2011 debut album, was full of earnest folksy ballads that deftly utilized tinkering pianos, delicately plucked acoustic guitars and male-female vocal harmonies (that caveat of seemingly every single successful ‘hip’ band on the radio these days). Sure, it was comparable to a lot of other music that was being released—the usual cries of ‘Mumford rip-offs’ abounded. Yet, songs like “Down in the Valley” and “Lost in my Mind” had just enough roughness, plain emotion and unique turns of melody from vocalists Josiah Johnson, Charity Rose Thielen and Jonathan Russell to set The Head and the Heart apart.

However, with the coming of a record deal and recognition, it seems The Head and the Heart has lost what made it great. Over-production and instrumentation has smoothed over the rough edges of the music. Gone are the slow and tantalizing builds from quiet intros to the harmonious chaos of a song’s crescendo. In its place is an altogether more cookie-cutter method of making music that’s palatable and non-invasive but also unexciting. Granted, there’s nothing wrong with slow and considered music—The Civil Wars have perfected it— but there’s a difference between somber and intriguing and sluggishly lackluster. Yes, none of the songs on “Let’s Be Still” are terrible, but most of them are forgettable. Gone is the exciting raw quality of the group’s earlier music that set it apart from the indie-pop crowd.

Indeed, the album’s commanding name, “Let’s Be Still,” is a little bit unnecessary considering most of the songs won’t exactly have you jumping out of your seat. The band has taken to experimenting with synths and a fuller sound, and the result often sounds like easy listening radio and folk-lite that your parents might put on to feel like they’re ‘in’ with popular music. Tracks start out quietly promising and then fail to really pick up from there. “My Friends” is endearing and toe-tapping with sweet harmonies, but it veers dangerously into Of Mice & Men territory with too much reliance on callback vocals and rollicking piano. The band’s trademark earnestness now often bleeds into cloying, as is the case with album opener “Homecoming Heroes,” a song about veterans returning from war.

However, these accusations luckily don’t apply to the entire album. There are some great songs on “Let’s Be Still.” Two of the best offerings on the LP, “Cruel” and “These Days are Numbered,” return to the raw emotion that fueled the first album and channel this through influences of blues and soul. In particular, the combination of Thielen’s heartfelt vocal performance and a well-utilized harmonica on “These Days are Numbered” provides the most engaging moment of the album.

Ultimately, while there may be some bright spots on “Let’s Be Still,” hinting at the promise and potential that The Head and the Heart have as a band and that it has displayed in the past, the album is somewhat of a subdued sophomore effort that won’t offend but also won’t turn any new heads.

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