For the first six minutes of your initial listen to Hysterical Stars, the sophomore release from Chicago’s Head of Femur, shallow, meaningless ideas will run through your mind: Forget Wolf Parade and Smack My Lips Say Fun. Head of Femur is this year’s Arcade Fire. Twenty-seven guest musicians? Ambitious for a trio to write an album requiring that many extra feet, hands and mouths. strident guitars, triumphant horns, glistening keys filling new melody after new melody with a celebratory euphoria. Head of Femur’s sound is all over the place, like, whoa!
You’d think about how the band’s core members – Mike Ensler, Ben Armstrong and Matt Focht – are originally from Omaha, Nebraska and have connections to the Saddle Creek scene (Armstrong’s formerly of Commander Venus, and Focht’s currently rocking drums for Bright Eyes). And you might even e-mail a friend to declare these “brilliant” ideas about this band in hopes that your friend hasn’t heard the record yet and that you can be the one to turn him or her on. You got your friend into crystal meth. Why not Head of Femur?
But as soon as you click send, you feel woozy. Your ears act as if they’re deceiving you. Could “Manhattan,” only Hysterical Stars‘ third track, really be edging into budget Soft Bulletin territory? Is the lushness and buoyancy of the compositions really starting to feel synthetic and forced, half-assed even? You skip around.
“Percy” is a briskly paced, high-hat-heavy taste of the quirky rock you’re looking for, but it quickly vanishes, followed by the orchestral lull of “Skirts Are Takin’ Over.” By the time you jump to “The Sausage Canoe” you fear your quick-draw musical recommendation is little more than a vivisected beast of epic fad-rock – one part Decemberists, one part Polyphonic Spree, stir in Fiery Furnaces, serve on a plate of Broken Social Scene with all the typical influences (Eno, Byrne, XTC) as condiments. And then your patience fails.
“Song for Richard Manuel” with its sloppy organ intro, “Easy Street” with its muted speakeasy trumpet, and “Born in the Seventies” with its marching-band percussion counterbalanced by a synth-heavy western twang make for more swirling textures and unconnected flavors than any non-ADD-addled listener should consume.
As you draft your friend an apologetic e-mail, Head of Femur picks up a few last-minute points as the spazz-rock number “Do the Cavern” bursts with Friedberger siblings energy, and closer “Jack and the Water Buffalo” bubbles with a simple piano and engaging minimalism in its final minutes. But these shining moments come too little, too late.
All your early posits and excitement about Head of Femur sink when you realize your eagerness to discover some next big sound was clouding your judgment. It’s one thing if a band can harness such instrumental richness and fun creativity into a project that strikes with a feeling of importance (see Broken Social Scene’s latest self-titled gem). It’s another when a band’s indulgences come across as just that – indulgences.