Review by Tim Sendra
Headlights' second album Some Racing, Some Stopping is a whole bunch of fun. The group builds on the promise of their first album and consolidates their strengths into a peppy, pretty and satisfying romp through ten songs that will have fans of light and breezy indie pop smiling like crazy. The album is split between up-tempo tracks perfect for indie night at your local teen club, happy go lucky songs with glockenspiels, and sweeter than sugar ballads that might nudge your heartstrings but never tug too hard. All delivered with a huge cheery cherry on top in the form of Erin Fein's feather light and lovely vocals (though Tristian Wright's aren't bad but they are more workmanlike where hers are heavenly). Almost every song sounds like it could lead off a mixtape aimed at warming the heart of someone special; there is a giddy joy that permeates the record from start to finish. When the drums kick in and are joined by a chorus of bells on "Get Yer Head Around It" or when the doo wop harmonies of "So Much for the Afternoon" take flight, you'll be walking on air. Even the sad songs like the title track manage to be lighter than air thanks to the incredibly rich and layered production and the band's sense of restraint and ease. There are a lot of bands playing indie pop in 2008, but very few do it as well as Headlights do on Some Racing, Some Stopping.
Some Racing, Some Stopping
Headlights probably aren't going to rewire your synapses or hip you to the new subgenre, and that's sort of why I feel bad I don't like them more than I do. Stacked up against an increasingly cluttered media climate, bands can sometimes slip through the cracks simply because the pleasures they offer don't translate well to one-liners and pithy blurbs-- especially when what sets them apart isn't style, ambition, or personality so much as warm, welcoming production and reasonably sharp hooks. This three-piece from Champaign, Ill., introduced themselves as another such sleeper band on 2006's Kill Them With Kindness: a varied, melodic indie-pop debut album recalling New Pornographers, Grandaddy, and Stars.
Some Racing, Some Stopping is another disc of unassuming, well-crafted charms, sweetening its predecessor's already gentle brew with splashes of folk-pop, alt-country, and 1960s girls groups. Erin Fein still trades her light, airy vocals with Tristan Wraight's indie-dude murmurs, but here Wraight is more likely to be strumming an acoustic guitar than crunching out electric guitar chords. Headlights drummer Brett Sanderson helms the production, and like Death Cab for Cutie's Chris Walla, he proves himself able to get out of the way, so that chiming percussion, Fein's pealing keyboards, and even a bit of accordion by Decibully's Nick Sanborn can all pass by without calling attention to themselves for those who might dislike twee-pop, synth-pop, or accordion. Strings were the most grandiose thing about Kill Them With Kindness, opening the album in chamber-pop finery; Some Racing, Some Stopping integrates orchestral touches more fully into the songs, none of which linger past the four-minute mark.
Slog dutifully through as much self-important art music as we do and such restraint seems even more admirable, but it's hardly Headlights' greatest strength. Bands like Rogue Wave and Rilo Kiley also make clean, concise guitar pop that's easily palatable for everyone from indie kids to TV licensing crews to your aunt whose last musical purchase was Norah Jones-- the second one. But not since The Execution of All Things, or possibly not even then, has either band done anything as flat-out pretty as Some Racing, Some Stopping's first mp3, the love-blissed "Cherry Tulips". See? That wouldn't be a pithy blurb.
Other songs aren't always as distinctive, but do have appeal. "Towers" is a slower song with a "Cherry Tulips"-like arrangement, Fein singing softly about summer breezes and skinned knees, though all you'll probably remember is a wordless "ahh ahh" or "ooh ooh" here or there. Sanderson's drumming fills the air with hi-hats and early-Beatles snares on "On April 2", while the stripped-down title track gracefully confirms that Some Racing, Some Stopping refers to, aww, hearts. "So Much for the Afternoon" is dream-pop that glides by like a lazy summer Sunday.
That tendency to drift, to fade into the background, is part of what makes the album such an effortless listen, but it also makes some tracks unremarkable. With ringing, wistful acoustic guitar, "Market Girl" could be a latter-day Death Cab for Cutie song, though Wraight's vocal and lyrics are both more anonymous than I'd expect from Ben Gibbard. And Wraight's whispers are jarringly Elliott Smith-like on plodding nadir "January", one of the rare moments on the album where a single element calls attention to itself at the expense of the track as a whole.
Some Racing, Some Stopping is the kind of record, in other words, that you'd expect casual listeners to enjoy and critics to unfairly malign. Like I said, I'm not thrilled about it, but I don't think I'm being unfair. For all the giddy heights of "Cherry Tulips", it's hard to imagine many people ending a hard day rushing to their headphones so they can lose themselves in opener "Get Your Head Around It", where Wraight sings, "The things I will keep/ Are never in my sleep." If you can stick to moderation, the album has its share of contentments-- and a couple of real delights, too.
-Marc Hogan, March 06, 2008