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The Head and the Heart Chase Big Pop-Rock Dreams on ‘Living Mirage’

The Seattle folk-rock band’s fourth album exudes old-fashioned mainstream ambition

head and the heart

Alex Currie

The Head and the Heart have built their success the old fashioned way. The Seattle folk-rock band has evolved from a rootsy, homespun sound to a bigger, radio-ready one, earnestly finding their purchase in what’s left of the old old-fashioned pop-rock mainstream while exuding a tastefulness that makes their ambition and ascendance seem pretty unassuming.

The band’s fourth album is their poppiest to date, but it still feels organic, rooted in sturdy melodies, earnest sentimentality and the warm vocal chemistry between frontman Jonathan Russell and violist-guitarist Charity Rose Thielen. Living Mirage often  sounds like the Eighties-loving big-tent record Marcus Mumford was too pretentious to make, proudly echoing Bruce Hornsby, Bruce Springsteen and Fleetwood Mac among other touchstones; it isn’t hard to imagine half these songs getting airplay on VH-1 in 1988. The catchy hit single, “Missed Connection,” with its sleek production and huge ‘nah nah nah’ refrain, finds a sweet spot between NPR and modern-rock radio. “Brenda” is a lovely swirl of synths and steel guitars. “Running Through Hell” evokes Ryan Adams shooting for Tunnel of Love territory.

The stolid sense of purpose can be heard in the lyrics. “People Need a Melody” is a shimmering ode to maturity itself that will resonate with anyone who ever set aside precious personal dreams for grown-up considerations. “Isn’t living all about embracing the real,” they ask on the gently anthemic “Up Against the Wall.” That line could seem like the usual folkie sop to the power of authenticity, a way to remind fans that sonic slickness hasn’t compromised their core artisanal decency. But for this band, piloting through distraction to maintain focus on what matters is lived experience (a few years ago, co-frontman Josiah Johnson’s addiction issues led to his departure from the band). It makes the studied commerciality seem the work of people trying to find their way to a better life, rather than mere careerism.

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