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

Headstart: B

B real

Headstart! go where they wanna go

There was a time when we wouldn’t review EPs in this space (Sontiago is still bitter about it). EPs were stop-gaps, unimportant works, the theory went. Albums were serious affairs worthy of review.

Times have changed [*The “times” in this instance is October 2010]. An iTunes-trained culture is now back to consuming music by the single morsel and local producers like Jonathan Wyman are now advocating (rightly, in my opinion) that bands focus their efforts on bite-sized releases in more frequent fashion, giving the public more opportunity to catch that one great song they want for the workout mix.

Few bands have embraced this as heartily as Headstart!, whose pop-radio-rock orientation makes them ideally suited for this new paradigm. Throwing over pretensions about making “art,” they began a series of EPs last year with A, and now deliver B for the Halloween weekend. Yes, they fully intend a C, and as many more alphabet letters as finances and life’s right turns allow.

While the first installment in the series comprised straight-ahead pop songs in classic Headstart! fashion, B is more experimental. Sure, there is the smash-hit-sounding “Monday,” that opens the disc and will likely get plenty of spins on local radio, but the other four songs here are all decidedly left of pop center.

First that “Monday,” though. It’s as straight-up a radio rock song as a band could muster nowadays, with a quickly sung verse from frontman Kevin Kennie, a huge singalong chorus, a semi-reggae segue bit to spice things up, and a gang-vocal bridge before things wrap up. There isn’t a band in town that knows better how to put together this particular puzzle.

“You used to feel like Saturday/ No work and plenty of play,” Kennie sings, borrowing from a pop tradition that goes as far back, at least, to the Mamas and the Papas’ “Monday, Monday.” Now, however, “you feel like a Monday/ You feel like a thankless job/ You feel like something long and painful.” Ouch.

Then they follow that with a song about twice as mature and interesting, if not quite as instantly catchy. Opening with a piano and dirty guitar, “Home Vs. Away” is melancholy in a way they haven’t been since the Our House record, which was darker than this. Kennie’s throaty yell has been replaced by a more nuanced sing. And the chorus, which progresses like a relationship from I to you to we, absolutely buries the hook.

Even when Headstart! seem to be cranking out a throwback to earlier albums, as on the 2:35 pop track “Doesn’t that Sound Good,” they’re throwing out a wrinkle: that’s rhythm guitarist Ian Blanchard on lead vocals.

The craziest track here is “I’m the One,” a song that truly shows Headstart! are willing to try just about anything. It opens expansive and heavy, with digital whirs and feedback, crazed vocals stepping all over each other to create a manic feel. It could be a Dead Season tune. Well, until it flips into a pop chorus with a call-and-response rhythm.

Then it goes completely off the rails, dialing back into a piano-infused metal ballad before launching into a Queen-style chorus of voices like someone just dosed you.

If nothing else, it’s a lot of fun. As is seeing a band like Headstart! focusing less on what they’re supposed to do and more on what they want to do. Though they’ve never been predictable, with this album they’ll expand opinions of them greatly.

Photo credit: Matthew Robbins