You know when you love a band so much that you want to love everything they do but also can’t help holding them to a different kind of standard that makes it nearly impossible to listen to any new music they put out without comparing it to the first time you heard them?
I discovered The Head And The Heart’s debut album in the summer of 2013, when the boy I was dating that summer introduced me to their single Rivers And Roads. I fell in love with the song, and subsequently the guy, and it became the first of many songs that we covered together as a folk-pop duo. At that time the band had already begun to edge its way into the mainstream, having quickly risen from the Seattle folk underground, and was about to release their second album Let’s Be Still, the first that they had “produced as a full band”, according to frontman Josiah Johnson. Since then, The Head And The Heart have signed with Warner Bros., released their third full length album Signs Of Light, and been catapulted into full commercial success, with multiple film and television licensing placements, mainstream radio play and playing this year’s Coachella Festival.
Stinson Beach Sessions features demos of five songs from Signs Of Light as well as three previously unreleased tunes. On my first listen through, I found myself thinking that I liked these pared down rough-around-the-edges demos better than the polished multi-million dollar studio album versions. Of course, I have a personal penchant for stripped-down folk rock (it’s kind of my thing as a musician) as well as a sentimental connection to the band’s catalog, so I’m clearly biased. The intimacy of the recordings hearken back to the band’s first album, my first love. Listening to these demos feels like sitting in on a jam session, or a rehearsal, a refreshing glimpse into the process of a band that is currently living the dream of starting from scratch and eventually making it big.
On my second listen, I went back to Signs Of Light and compared each version to its polished studio counterpart. And the most interesting thing happened: after hearing the demo version of each song, I liked the album versions better, I appreciated the songs more, mostly because I was no longer hung up on how polished the recording was. Everyone wants to feel a personal connection with the bands they love, and I realized as I listened again that this album in some way must have been the band’s way to give back to their most loyal fans. After all, they printed a limited release of 3000 copies on vinyl to be sold exclusively around the world on Record Store Day last month.
The band’s inherently retro-leaning sound (they play real instruments after all) is elevated on these demos. Library Magic evokes the bittersweet sentimentality of Crosby, Stills and Nash and the folky story-telling of Cat Stevens. Your Mother’s Eyes stands out more as its seventies folk-rock vibe shines with the clunky upright piano bringing a charm that can’t be replicated by synth. Colors was forgettable easy-listening on Signs Of Light, but here its early nineties pop rock sound is nostalgic and groovy. The vocals are raspy and rockier. The reverb is grittier. I liked the previously unreleased opening track No Guarantees which spoke to every summer romance I’ve ever had with lyrics like “I’ll give you spark if you give me space”. But my favorite was In the Summertime, a song written by Johnson, who has been on a year-long hiatus from the band while healing from drug addiction. The driving beat and repetitive building instrumental hooks reminded me most of the early sound I fell in love with, and the richly layered ending gives me chills. It could be that without Johnson, one of the founding members of the band, they’ve both struggled to maintain the sense of unity that always made their music feel so personally affecting (they’ve also spoken candidly about needing to take a six month break from each other after touring their second album extensively), and also had the freedom to create a new, more commercially polished sound.
It’s hard for me to say whether Stinson Beach Sessions provides a poignant window into the band’s experience of navigating the transition from indie folk band to mainstream folk-pop, or if that’s what I’m projecting onto it as a fan. The Head And The Heart are truly a band’s band – skillful musicians and songwriters, masters of arrangement, adept at distilling the most complex emotions into simply affecting vocal riffs and lyrics that are both universal and specific. I for one will be eagerly waiting to see where their musical evolution takes them next.