Headstart have only been around for about five years, but especially with frontman Kevin Kennie's long history in the scene, begun with Shufflin' Tremble/Loud Neighbor, they are now decidedly mid-career artists. Gone are the halcyon days of self-titled debut albums brimming with enthusiasm, and they've edged past sophomore-album progression and third-effort concept album.
They've reached, with the latest EP, A, dance-with-the-girl-that-brung-ya stage, revisiting their radio-rock roots and delivering a five-song collection of not-even-three-minute power-pop tracks, all with great hooks and opportunities for singing along. It might be older and wiser power-pop, filled with subtle jabs and lamentations, and Kennie's voice might sound 100,000 cigarettes older sometimes, but it delivers a rush, nonetheless.
As you might discern from the packaging -- Ken and Barbie on one side; my three-year-old boy (yes, really; the situation sort of caught me unawares) and one of Kennie's nieces on the other -- Headstart have not abandoned their taste for relationship tunes. With the opening "Ready, Set...," however, they deliver a meditation on the be-my-girl nature of radio rock, taking it to its morbid extreme: "You'll have to promise me that we'll go at the same time." Yes, it's a song about wanting to die with the one you love, full of cheery handclaps, a ripping Ben Flood guitar solo, and upbeat delivery of words in triplicate.
"Ha Ha," with a "ha, ha, ha-ha-ha-ha, ha-ha, ha, ha" opener, as ruthlessly sneering as that Naomi chick on the new 90210 (if you're not watching it out of some kind of better-than-thou attitude, you're just spiting yourself), introduces itself as the ultimate kiss-off song, but is more accurately a Dear John letter to adolescence: "Most folks, they don't live it like we did/Most folks can't say they don't regret a thing/See, we can't be down if we're remembering." The two-stroke rhythm guitar from Ian Blanchard leaves room to breathe in the resignation.
"Face It" is the story of a girl with OCD superstitions, a character sketch, but mostly just an exercise in wordplay, as Kennie constructs ever more situations where her superstitions inconvenience the boy/the world: "Honey you're starting to smell funny/I'm sorry girl, everybody knows/that when the Sox win you don't change your clothes" or "You're late to work if a rainbow shows/gotta go and hunt for that pot of gold." The clipped delivery will probably remind you of that "One Week" song (and I say that descriptively, not pejoratively -- I'm sure you write hit-selling singles in your sleep, but don't want to sell out), but it also borrows from the hip-hop tradition.
And while the sophomore disc, Sincerely Yours, opened with "Back at the Beginning," this EP finishes with "Spinning My Wheels," a song that puts its protagonist squarely in the middle between start and finish. It's hard not to read it as Kennie looking back over the first decade-plus in the biz. It opens with the chorus, "It feels like I'm spinning my wheels/I'm not even moving backwards," and continues with a litany of experiences that never managed to reach any sort of conclusion: "Tried chemicals, they made me feel incredible/But then in the end all I'd want to do is stare straight and sit still." There's some of Joe Strummer's aggressive, percussive delivery in there, backed by layers of vocals and injected with a lick that's more Audioslave than you'd think.