Headstart!: Our House

The House that Headstart! built

Let’s just say it’s more Amityville Horror than Victoria Mansion

How did that CSN song go? “Our house/ Is a very, very, very fine house/ With two cats in the yard/ Life used to be so hard/ Now everything is easy, cuz of you.” That’s it.

For Headstart!’s new album, that ain’t it. Nothing is easy (except for the singalong choruses), everything is hard (even the rock, from time to time), and while the house may be fine, what goes on inside it is more Korn than CSN. Actually, that might give you the wrong idea — Headstart! never get near Korn’s eardrum-damaging sonic assault, but they do riff on similar themes of Middle American family strife, going well beyond the mental anguish suffered by the protagonist of their last album, Sincerely Yours, who simply couldn’t get the girl.

In fact, they take albums like 6gig’s Mind over Mind, which explores father-son physical and psychological abuse themes, one step further by supplying a full narrative in storyboard, by way of an enclosed screenplay that includes every word sung over the course of the 11-song work — but also a great deal more, some 13,000 words, actually.

I challenge you not to read along while you listen and to resist rewinding (not that you’re winding anything anymore) in trying to keep up.

Our House is a departure and a creative leap forward for a band both entrenched and living on the edges of the Portland music scene, adding depth and purpose to what was already a very smart group. Despite making a name for themselves over two highly successful albums as an ironic and sarcastic pop-punk outfit, Headstart! have played few high-profile gigs over the past couple of years, and have now turned inward with a soul-searching and thoughtful piece of art.

The album plays out as dark and tortured anti-Broadway, the tale of a family torn apart by an abusive father and pulled back together by a mother strong enough to kick the family’s “monster” to the curb. Such is the culmination of the story in the powerful “Saved by Subtraction,” featuring Ry Cook (Even All Out) and Katherine Albee (the Awesome). The music aptly follows the path of a woman who is initially so disheartened that she dispassionately notes, “There is still a piece of my hair on fire/ I’d put it out but I’m just too tired.” Yet, by the song’s conclusion, she feels no remorse for forcing her husband out.

“You’re the one who said we would make it,” she accuses. “All along I knew you were faking/ So I wouldn’t take back anything that I’ve done to you.”

But it’s what this monster has done to his family that’s unforgivable.

The album’s best song, “The Boy Who Died in Stereo,” is a heartbreaker as much as it is a winning piece of nearly indie rock. It’s like the Shins on HGH, with a great rhythm guitar and breathy, reserved vocals from frontman Kevin Kennie, supported by Cook’s Even All Out singer, Billy Libby. Kennie penned all of this, and perhaps this song best represents what he’s trying to say.

With Nate Warren’s bass thumping like a heartbeat behind Adam Parvanta’s cymbal-heavy lock-step, we empathize with a boy who tries to escape a smoking, drinking monster of a father through music, only to be told, “hush, hush,” which does, indeed, share some sentiment with Till Tuesday’s “Voices Carry.” At this point, the mother cares very much about public perception, as she entreats her son, “And don’t you let it get around town/ That inside these walls all the speakers fall in pieces to the ground.”

This son was “living on tiptoes,” trying to avoid his father’s wrath, while he remained an embarrassment to his father. In the end, though, the son refuses to play the victim: “You were half in the bag while I was faking my sleep,” he accuses. Meanwhile, the “townspeople” sing an alternate lyric throughout the chorus, wondering what could be the story of this house that might from the outside seem to house any other nuclear family.

It’s as much indictment of society, the prying eyes of which may force people into unsafe situations for fear of gossip and judgment, as it is of the father in this story. From the packaging to the enclosed script to the varying musical styles, Our House asks the listener for much more than either of Headstart!’s previous albums. Let’s hope they get something in return.

Photo Credit: Matthew Robbins