Kill Them With Kindness
ome albums are so nice and harmless, they beg to be hated. Perhaps suffering from this attitude, this writer originally intended to sharply criticize Kill Them With Kindness, the debut album by Headlights, for its naïvely-constructed pastiche of existing indie-pop styles. There’s far too much of the recent Toronto and Montreal sounds here to ignore and it’s far too straight a copy to let the band off the hook for it. Nevertheless, it’s become clear that it would be harsh to completely dismiss the record when its greatest crime is happily occupying a genre without exploring it at all—even when it’s adding to a style already lousy with sickeningly sweet sentiment.
Perhaps it’s better expressed in the language of an indie-pop lover: when making mixtapes for friends, one generally learns with experience that it’s better to add an element of surprise. A couple of dynamic, unfamiliar sounds make for a much more interesting listen than just a bunch of someone’s favorite songs. If Headlights had heeded this simple maxim, they might have fared better with Kill Them With Kindness. The Urbana-Champaign group has gained a healthy head of steam after being signed to Polyvinyl, having their debut EP re-released, and somehow landing a cut on Grey’s Anatomy. Lofty expectations must have been built for a group just a shade over two years old, though they already sound like they’re well-established.
Vocalists Erin Fein and Tristan Wraight’s harmonies retain a tight if plodding quality, deliberate in delivery from the opening orchestral strains of “Your Old Street,” and in general the band pairs winning melodies with pretty alternations of lo-fi synths, noisy guitars, and orchestral arrangements. Given the male/female vocal dynamic and melodic indie-rock delivery, a legitimate comparison to Stars is possible. As the record progresses, Headlights makes a number of other obvious sonic references that, in retrospect, should have raised glaring red flags in production.
It’s a nice move for Fein and Wright to open the record with a noisy crescendo and then drop it back to highlight their harmonized, cyclical melody, but it’s well-trodden territory and has been done more effectively on tracks like Broken Social Scene’s “KC Accidental.” When Headlights go for the big endings, say at the end of “TV,” it’s big in an Arcade Fire way, with Fein playing the allegorical Regine whooting towards resolution. Even the refreshing power-pop of “Lions” and “Hi-Ya” seems a little too informed by the New Pornographers to really hit hard.
It’s a struggle to decide whether the stylistic trappings ruin the album beyond redemption. While “TV” and “Put Us Back Together” are indeed enjoyable and dramatic songs, repeated listens to the record beg some disturbing questions, like “Does it matter that a lot of the songs on the album are well-written?” and more to the point “Is a song really well-written if it sounds like something someone else did four years ago?” Kill Them With Kindness might be a rewarding listen, for example, for a Stars fan, but then again it might be better to stick with the more familiar originals.
Certainly there are worse offenders out there—Headlights are a far cry from the creative bankruptcy of a group like Snow Patrol. Despite giving the impression that they lack imagination, Headlights makes rather few miscues other than some ill-advised momentum-breaking interludes (“The Midwest Is the Best,” “Struggle W/ Numbers”) and an abrupt ending with the weak “Signs Point to Yes (But Outlook Not So Good)” followed by the feedback snippet “I Love, You Laugh.” I mean, at least Headlights presents all the best parts of their influences, and even goes so far as to set them to nice melodies…Right?