Summer ends on September 23 this year, though the unofficial end of the season is Labor Day, the last hurrah for kids being ushered off to classes the next morning, memories of their bygone, carefree days still lingering as they wrap their textbooks in paper grocery bags. I hate to have to be the one to tell the kids, but I’ve already seen a million and a half of those Staples ads. Fall is coming, there’s no avoiding it. But even if it marks the end of those lazy, warm months, autumn is among the most beautiful seasons, and for me, it’s always been a comforting time of year. Inevitably, from time to time, there are albums that seem inextricably tied to the season, like Portishead’s Dummy or the Velvet Underground’s self-titled album, but Champaign, Illinois trio Headlights have actually captured that bittersweet limbo between the summer and fall on their debut full-length, Kill Them With Kindness.
From the beginning, Kindness appears to be much more of a fall album, starting off with the graceful string quartet intro to “Your Old Street.” At six minutes, the epic song is the album’s longest, thus carrying on the 2006 tradition of putting the odyssey at the beginning (look back at what you listened to this year and you’ll see) and presenting a sprawling, emotional ballad with which to open their fuzzy pop masterpiece. With its gorgeous layers of instruments and the layering of Erin Fein and Tristan Wraight’s vocals, the song is strongly reminiscent of Stars’ “Your Ex-Lover is Dead,” only with more glockenspiel. And though the song’s lush tones make it more of an autumn selection, there’s a conclusive, climactic quality about it, as if watching the sun descend on that final evening.
Track two, “TV” is much more of a summer song, by comparison. One-third the length and rife with surfy guitar riffs and plinking piano, it’s a gorgeous, danceable indie rocker that piles on the hooks. Short as it is though, it contains a similarly climactic and emotional quality that “Your Old Street” does, and remains just as impressive, even if in a much smaller package. “Put Us Back Together Right” falls somewhere between the two, drums galloping and synthesizers soaring, and it’s around this point where a strong New Order influence begins to rear its head, which carries into “Songy Darko,” recalling both transitional Joy Division and New Order’s Low-Life era.
With the refrain of “there’s a place for us to run to” on “Owl Eyes,” the piano and synth-laden tune visits the common summertime theme of escape, and as the song escalates in volume and tempo, the idea of escape becomes even more imminent and suspenseful. “Lions” is another song that fits in more with summer than fall, bouncing along with a melody reminiscent of “Where Have All The Rude Boys Gone?” and a delightful chorus of “going, going, gone/I’m glad that you came along/and just stole this heart of mine.” The minor-key “Lullabies” returns to the melancholy of fall, sad and beautiful, with the electronic instrumental segue “Struggle With Numbers” providing an apt intro for the awesome “Words Make You Tired.” The New Order influence truly blooms on this song, which features a stunning synth hook and a heavy, distorted bassline, making it the most single-friendly song on an album with a half dozen potential A-sides. Meanwhile, “Hi-Ya!” proves to be more than just a cool title, but also a high energy, rocking new wave track.
Sequentially, the songs on Kill Them With Kindness shoot back and forth between autumnal ballads and summery pop gems, but that yin and yang creates an excellent flow, not allowing either half of the record to be overloaded. Headlights create a great balance of sounds, and they do so by simply writing spectacular songs. The best thing about good songs, of course, is that they never go out of season.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.