NORTHWEST EXPOSURE Heart-weary, unvarnished qualities made Seattle’s the Head and the Heart a predicable breakout act in the ever-changing folk scene.
With the twist of classic pop that they bring to the dourness of the current indie-folk sound, the Head and the Heart were one of the breakout acts of last year’s Newport Folk Festival. This year they are back to anchor a (hopefully) sunny Sunday at Fort Adams, which offers plenty for folk fans who prefer the many margins of the genre, from the mercurial Jackson Browne to the emerging tUnE-yArDs. Meanwhile, Alabama Shakes, Sharon Van Etten, and Iron and Wine lead a veritable indie-folk Grammy awards on Saturday. But it’s the Head and the Heart who once again are a must-see act this weekend in Newport (after two warm-up gigs at Royale).
At their start two years ago, their acoustic, heart-weary, unvarnished qualities gave the Seattleites a big fat “RIYL Fleet Foxes” sticker right on their proverbial foreheads. Except instead of sounding like CSNY for people young enough not to be jaded by those hymns to domesticity, the Head and the Heart came in from a breezier, more parochial place, where boys evade curfew for the sake of midnight piano renditions of the Beatles and ELO.
What no one could have predicted was that an ensemble not that far removed from their open-mic origins would go on to sell 10,000 copes of their homonymous 2011 Sub Pop debut album on mostly word of mouth. That’s just how strong the Seattle scene is, if you ask founding member and songwriter Josiah Johnson. “The culture of Seattle is familial, in that everyone wants everyone else to succeed,” he says by phone from a tour stop. Of course it would all have been for naught if the Head and the Heart didn’t have the goods in the first place.
“There was a grandness that we wanted,” Johnson says. “I think we more want to play pop music like the Beatles and ELO with the interesting [chord] changes and key changes. But at the time the only means that we had to express it were acoustic guitars.”
Even when he and collaborator Jon Russell finally had the six-piece band to execute their ideas, they kept it simple. The critically acclaimed debut flows by like one grand easy-listening session by the indie-folk camp fire. Their talents are intentionally undersold. Although they might not have the signature harmonies of the Fleet Foxes, they do have three unique and interesting voices that work hard to find a happy middle ground. Johnson and Russell tend to work somewhere in the realm of the restraint and worn-out vibe of Thom Yorke and Ryan Adams. Meanwhile, Charity Rose Theilen mixes in a bluesy, Karen Dalton–esque alto that provides a vintage contour to the mix (“She’s an old soul,” remarks Johnson). These styles don’t obviously blend, and all three singers work together to make sure that no one — or no one thing — stands out too much. It’s all aimed conspicuously at a laid-back, accessible sweet spot. “No one is singing at the top of their register,” Johnson says.