Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound engineering by Brad Kopplin
This is how the world can be better. This is improvement. This is a special form of gentrification, this new Headlights album, Some Racing, Some Stopping. Some years ago, James Mercer of The Shins gave an interview where he described the neighborhood he moved into with his McDonald's commercial money as being mostly crack houses just a few years earlier. He said there were still some. They likely aren't there anymore. Progress has taken them, but the idea of gentrification isn't one of progress getting the ugly betterment of something - taking something that doesn't need any touches and giving it a full-body makeover. It's about making wholesome what once wasn't so much. It's about revitalizing in a way that actually just says, "What's happened here for the last 30 years has been a poor representation of a neighborhood as it's supposed to look and act. Let's power-wash all of the paint from the walls, hose down all of the riff-raff, sand off the edges and start over."
The Champaign, Ill.-based band didn't have any disgusting problems or blemishes before they released their new album. Far from it. They were making some stunning pop music, singing the sweet vining vocals of Erin Fein and Tristan Wraight and writing songs about living in a smaller Midwestern town and seeing all of the same people doing all of the same things and never getting bigger eyes, just managing and getting by. Maybe it dawned on them that the things they were singing about might have been the closest things to death without the stench - those living for the ends of the day and for the days that might never come. There was indignation for the place they'd always called home and a stubborn affinity for it as well - something most of us are always partly to blame for. Love's not all that can be unrequited.
Where Headlights let themselves stroll on their latest album - one that should be considered a contender for an upper division finish in those year-end round-ups even though the year's only half gone - is to a place where you can just let your legs dangle into the water from a pier, careless and beaming as all of the fading light ducks behind a crest. It's a place that creates these light, almost doo-wop-y tunes that used to be staples on AM radio stations through the use of unspoken imagery that floods the senses with nostalgic goodness. Those in the songs seem to be filled up to their tippy-toes with sparks and glowing joy instead of feeling like they were just another cold cadaver getting cut into, observed and worked on.
Cherry Tulips" is the song that we should all wish could be the theme song of all of the waking moments. It's an invigorating blast of misty air and bated breath that comes over to you and just so nicely hugs the daylights out of you, causing you to lose your balance and fall into a sweltering swoon. It's a winding jaunt that could fine many uses and homes, but should think about selling the theories of fountains of youth and endless dream vacations commercially. I would take the pitch hook, line and sinker without a struggle. Wraight and Fein couldn't play foils to each other as their voices work as perfect mates, just fluttering with each other like birds at play, dipping and diving, touching wings in a frenetic flapping and then just lilting into their cozy levels.
They - drummer Brett Sanderson and the band's two new members - have taken all of whatever was in front of them and sprayed it with a Main Street America feel, giving it a timeless veneer that feels like the proverbial warm apple pie, Fourth of July fireworks and plates of homemade chocolate chip cookies (these songs would probably barf at the thought of store-bought or tube-created sweets), piping hot, fresh from mom's oven. They have gone and made betterness.
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