Headlights gel perfectly into the current Polyvinyl family, and not just because they are from the label’s home base of Champaign, Illinois. Polyvinyl has always been a label that’s hard to categorize, housing bands from all edges of the underground music world. But allow me to generalize in saying that the label seems to be heading in a poppy, dancey direction with Of Montreal finally gaining some well-deserved indie spotlight and recent additions Architecture in Helsinki bringing fun dance numbers from down under. However, the label has also always been partial to the more hushed acts, from American Football and Owen to Ida and the new Aloha stuff. Headlights manage to combine those two directions with their gentle yet driving, poppy but not sugary, toe-tapping but not necessarily dancey tracks.
Among the Midwestern cornfields, Headlights recorded on their own in guitarist Tristan Wraight’s farmhouse, with drummer Brett Sanderson at the boards. The trio were able to catch the songs at the excitement of their conception, rather than meticulously layering tracks as on their debut full-length Kill Them with Kindness. While that first album had the pop, it was not hushed with its raw electric guitars and pounding drums like the near-retro rock of “Lions” and with weirder, squelching synths as heard in “TV.”
On Some Racing, Some Stopping, Headlights are like the Arcade Fire’s cheery alter-ego. The many shared sonic qualities -- male and female leads, lighter yet driving drums, supportive guitar that is often acoustic, keys that favor organ sounds, lots of auxiliary percussion -- along with the boomy production keeps bringing me back to this comparison. Just check out “Market Girl” or “School Boys” and tell me you can’t hear a little bit of “Laika” in there.
“Catch Them All” sounds the most like Fingers Crossed-era AIH (albeit with less of the band instruments) with its hook almost being the bassline, helped out by tambourine and glockenspiel with sweet and wispy girl/guy vocals. “Cherry Tulips” chugs along with a Cash-like train-down-the-line brushed drumbeat and bass lightly pulsing forward with Erin Fein at the vocal helm. For some reason it reminds me a lot of my favorite Jenny Lewis solo track, “You Are What You Love,” and perhaps some of the newer, cleaned up Bright Eyes stuff. But this isn’t a country track -- just driving pop full of vibes, light electric guitar, an organ-like synth and full background vocals. Some other tracks with Fein at the mic (like “Towers”) do remind a bit of the old, less bombastic Jenny Lewis Rilo Kiley stuff.
Although I call the music hushed, ballads are rare here. Closer “January” is a slower track that piqued my interest with Wraight’s vocals bordering on an Elliott Smith whisper, along with Fein’s harmonies, more glockenspiel, sleighbells and (yes!) accordion. Ironically, the album’s title track is the one song which is a tad uneventful in its quiet nature, though the ‘singing saw’ towards the end is awesome.
While I have compared Headlights to many a band, they definitely occupy their own space in the musical landscape. Not wacky or giddy enough to ever be confused with AIH, not as dark or bordering on pretension like Arcade Fire, Headlights maintain a feel-good yet never-shallow take on indie pop. I’ve always been hesitant to give really high review scores and in the past two years I’ve only given four reviews 9 or 10 points, so I think this score says something. I’m smitten with Headlights!