Some Racing, Some Stopping

They grow up so fast, don’t they? Indie rock groups. One day they’re playing half-way down the bill in village halls and VFW’s, and the next day they’re all grown up, releasing a second album in as many years and going off to play SXSW.
At least that’s the case for Champaign’s own indie pop rockers Headlights, who recently released their sophomore album, Some Racing, Some Stopping, as a follow-up to 2006’s Kill Them With Kindness.
“On this one, we really kind of wanted to zone in and trim the fat and make a much more focused, concentrated, cohesive record,” said guitarist and vocalist Tristan Wraight.
On the whole, they succeed beautifully, blending Kindness’ transcendent pop accents with simpler, more cohesive instrumentation. Recorded in Wraight’s Champaign farmhouse, Some Racing, Some Stopping combines acoustic and electric guitar riffs with stark drumbeats and sweet kisses from Erin Fein’s keyboards and percussionist Brett Sanderson’s xylophone (or maybe it’s a glockenspiel, can anyone really tell the difference?). The album is nicely textured, but still holds together a tight indie pop motif that leaves the listener tapping toes to even some of the more melancholic tracks. New members Nick Sanborn of Decibully and John Owen of Shipwreck also join the trio on the album.
Right off the bat, “Get Your Head Around It” makes it clear that Headlights has not abandoned its catchy pop accents, but has combined them with less ambient, crisper instrumentation. Much of the electronica featured in Kill Them With Kindness is replaced by bells and organ, giving the album a tighter feel and a more consistent sound.
“Cherry Tulips,” the first single off the record, features Wraight strumming an acoustic guitar as brushes dance lightly off Sanderson’s drum heads creating a starker, almost 60’s unplugged sound. But the chorus hits with that sweet kiss of pop sugar that Headlights has already proven they are great at delivering in the form of Fein and Wraight’s vocals. There is enough going on in the song to tease the listener’s ears, without being overwhelming.
By “Market Girl,” Headlights has their groove going. Sanderson’s drums make the song simple and slightly distressed, but the clap track that jumps in during the intro is sure to put a big smile on any listener’s face. Whereas on Kindness, it felt as if Wraight and Fein sometimes battled each other for vocal prominence, the combination of Wraight and Fein’s voices adds an enjoyable layer to many of the Some Racing’s songs, including “Market Girl.”
Following toe tapper, “On April 2,” is one of the album’s best tracks, “School Boys.” It’s a highly instrumental, melancholy pop track that combines Wraight’s twangy guitar, organ undertones, Fein’s light vocal accents, violin riffs, and a simple drum beat to create a gorgeous soundscape that carries nicely into the album’s title track.
“Some Racing, Some Stopping,” the title track, is exactly what makes the album so damn good. The combo of Fein’s vocals and a singular xylophone (or glockenspiel or whatever) and tambourine makes a bitter tale of two people’s unavoidable communication breakdown really, really pretty. And the lyrics, which have never been the band’s strong suit, are some of the best they’ve ever written.
Continuing on through the sugary “ooohs” and “aaahs” of “So Much for the Afternoon,” “Catch Them All” hits the listener with a peppy acoustic guitar riff and a bouncy bass line that keeps the pace of the album quick.
“Towers” is the beginning of the album’s excellent ending. Its beat is catchy, its vocals cute, but the whining organ and slow pluck of the keyboards gives the song a wistful quality, the kind one might imagine as an ex-lover gets into a cab and pulls away for the last time. And “January,” is the perfect capper to Some Racing. Many of the wonderful aspects of the album appear for an encore as Wraight croons, “time just marches on…” It’s open ended and conclusive, happy and sad, layered but cohesive and digestible.
Some Racing, Some Stopping isn’t without its flaws. In some cases, the lyrics don’t stand up to the instrumentals, but Wraight and Fein’s voices manage to carry them along just fine. From time to time, the ambience in some songs breaks the focus from the vocals and muddies the focus a bit. But it’s rare to find an album that can be so sad sometimes and yet put a smile on your face and a tap in your toes. It can keep you warm in the winter and you can lay out to it in the summer. It’s mature far beyond Headlights’ few brief years. Champaign’s own indie pop babies are all grown up.

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