Headlights Wildlife

[Polyvinyl; 2009]

Styles: indie rock

Let’s face it, some music is just boring. It’s like that “indie” film, the one produced by 20th Century Fox, the one you watch on a lazy Sunday only to forget the next day. Headlights, from Champaign, IL, are like the 32-year-old supporting role from that film. The guy who can’t hold down a job, has no meaningful relationships, doesn’t know What To Do, and spends most afternoons reminiscing about the simpler times, when life was easy and he didn’t have this fucking beer belly and cracked wrinkles around his mouth from smoking too many cigarettes outside the local dive bar.

In other words, you feel kind of bad about how middle-of-the-road Headlights are, yet all sympathy is balanced by the desire for them to just grow up and become interesting. The lack of specificity in this description is reflected in the music. “I wish I wasn’t so far from home,” Erin Fein and Tristan Wraight sing on “Telephones,” sounding like they formed an indie pop band after reading about it in a magazine (or was it a blog?). All the formulaic components are here: two chords, ethereal guy/girl vocal harmonies, minimal keyboard sounds, tremolo guitar, Mo Tucker drumbeat. Like a checklist. And so goes the group’s third album, Wildlife, a collection of some of the most digestible, passively exploitative music of the year.

No, there’s nothing wrong with being unassuming. In fact, it is more dangerous to believe that good music has to change your life, but Headlights’ non-threatening approach is so subtle that their mediocrity nearly goes unnoticed. The music itself is almost impossible to hear. The reinterpreted bubble gum pop of “You and Eye” drowns in its own dullness, never truly latching onto a melody. “Dead Ends,” with its piano-driven lament of “Nobody’s got your back—not even your friends/ They can’t, they’re too busy growing old,” is stripped of meaning by the pure laziness of the delivery, a boredom that passes itself off as meditative calm. The closing song, “Slow Down Town,” contains a nostalgia that hardly seems conscious. It appears as nothing more than a young professional’s sober complaint, made tedious by its casualness: “You dreamt about easier times, when your friends were around and they called you on the weekend and you knew where all the people hung out.” It’s difficult to believe the group is being serious, especially with the nursery rhyme chorus, filled with vague imagery and no development of character: “They take you downtown and show you around.” In the end, it all sounds fine, neither good nor bad, but depthless.

The detached ambience of Fein and Wraight’s vocal harmonies nearly obscures the incessant montage of immature moroseness in the group’s lyrics. The instrumentation, a distant, lackluster entity, shrouds this immaturity in shadows as well — never insulting, but always failing to grab attention. So the cluster-fuck montage of words about the Thirty-Something American Crisis of Consciousness goes largely unnoticed unless you listen closely. The paradox of the music is how difficult it is to listen to closely, if only because it is so approachable, so uncomplicated. Music this casual begs for a casual listen.

Headlights, then, have positioned themselves into a difficult, opaque place. How does one criticize this music? How does one say anything about it? It might go something like this:

“Man, some of those guitars sound a little like Yo La Tengo!”

“And that harmony is kind of pretty!”

“Yeah and the drumming is really…minimal and concise!”

The absence, though, of anything truly terrible balances out the presence of nothing really good. With the lack of emotion that accompanies listening to Wildlife, it would be easy to take the album as something of an archetype regarding the danger of monotony, of unimportance in pop music — even pop music that no one, or at least only an esoteric collection of people, listens to. Such a sentiment, however, gives Headlights too much credit. Wildlife is nothing more than an album that sounds fine in the background — even at a volume you couldn’t help but pay attention to — yet ultimately fails to make any kind of memorable impression.

1. Telephones
2. Secrets
3. You and Eye
4. Get Going
5. Love Song for Buddy
6. I Don't Mind at All
7. Dead Ends
8. Wisconsin Beaches
9. We're All Animals
10. Teenage Wonder
11. Slow Down Town

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