Smile Politely

Catchy, as in contagious

I’m so tempted to compare Headlights‘ new CD Wildlife to “The Hinny,” a phrase I’m hoping will turn out to be the preferred late-00s nickname for H1N1. Like swine flu, Wildlife is incredibly catchy, albeit enjoyably so. Also like swine flu: if you get it, you’ll probably be over it in about two weeks.

Wildlife really isn’t bad. The album’s best songs carry infectious pop hooks I found myself fighting off as they repeatedly popped into my head after a few listens. Two songs in particular — “Get Going” and “Secrets” — are the kind of incredibly charming and also incredibly insistent jingles you might find yourself impulsively humming when you are, for instance, biking to the library, waiting on line to buy a stamp, or choosing a butternut squash at Schnucks — or doing data entry or graphic design, as the case may be. “Telephones” and “I Don’t Mind at All” are similarly contagious and make some this album upbeat pop in the vein of Rilo Kiley.

Wildlife‘s other songs, however, are much more somber and aim at a kind of haunting prettiness that just doesn’t succeed. The one-sheet (which is, after all, the arbiter of such things) describes the record as generally “elegiac rather than rousing” and I think the word elegiac is apt: as a whole, Wildlife offers mournful, wistful meditations on human beings’ losses and limits and so the generally melancholy key Headlights strikes is appropriate, even if it risks listeners’ attention. Intentionally or not, most of the songs are largely forgettable monuments to loss, each featuring one or several interesting arrangements and not much more. Some — like “Love Song for a Buddy” and “Wisconsin Beaches” — are decidedly lo-fi, the instrumentation stripped in the former down to a hypnotic drum sequence and in the latter to an acoustic guitar; others foreground synthesizers, like “You and Eye,” in which vocalist/keyboardist Erin Fein narrates the aftermath of a failed relationship.

These are pretty songs, adeptly played, but they don’t haunt and they won’t follow you to the grocery. “Secrets” will. On it, a few repeated phrases on the keyboard frame Fein’s repeated solicitations for someone to tell her about several painful memories, as if the song aimed at a kind of therapeutic treatment for melancholy: as if talking about memories would make them less painful. “Secrets” ends with Fein’s requests trailing off unanswered as the frame repeats for a few more bars — as if the keyboard had what we call in the industry a “compulsion to repeat,” an instance of the compulsion you will feel to hum this song repeatedly in passing after hearing it. And so Wildlife‘s catchiest songs paradoxically achieve the haunting effect the more “elegiac” tracks aim for and miss. I love “Secrets” and I love “I Don’t Mind at All”… and I wish I loved the whole record as much.

Here’s where I confess that I’d never heard Headlights before, despite the fact that they are a sort of C-U institution and despite the fact that this is their third full-length on Polyvinyl, another C-U institution and a label I’ve been a fan of since Braid and Rainer Maria. I’m eager now to hear Headlights’ other records and to hear how they sound live when they play their Pygmalion show Wednesday. For lack of a better phrase, Wildlife features a lot of what Matt “Brat DeWurst” DeWine at Pieholden Suite Sound Studio might call “audio effects” (he wouldn’t actually call them this): it’s really well-produced, but really produced and makes me wonder how they’ll produce the same sweet sounds from “Secrets” and “Telephones” on stage. You can see and hear for yourself on Wednesday at The Canopy Club.

Wildlife, the new album by Headlights springs, fully-formed, into the world on 6 October 2009.

More Articles