Fivehead is the kind of band that people root for to succeed. They’re a group of hard-working, beer-drinking nice guys who live and breathe indie-rock, and do what they do without making a fuss about it. This isn’t just some hackneyed journalistic angle; it’s the truth. I’ve hung out with these guys, I’ve rocked out to their shows, I’ve rocked out with them at other people’s shows, I’ve been to a couple of their parties, and one of the members even makes a guest appearance on my OWN record. They do so much for Austin’s indie-rock scene that it’s ridiculous, from running homemade recording studios, organizing Guided by Voices hoot nights and Porchlight Pop Fests, to running bars named “Hot Freaks.” If goodwill could be converted into money, no member of Fivehead would have to work a day job again in his life. Unfortunately, getting Austin (let alone the rest of the country) to recognize their greatness has been an uphill battle, due partly to the five years that elapsed between their 1999 debut album and Guests of the Nation. Their freshman effort bore the foreshadowing title It’s Not All Good and It’s Not Right On, and what came next was a series of personal setbacks, from divorces to layoffs to house fires, that would have made most bands throw in the towel.
As we all know, though, the blue-collar underdogs are often made of
stronger stuff. The mere fact that Fivehead’s sophomore album exists is a hard-won triumph, and it is made even more so by the fact that it is GREAT from beginning to end. Guests of the Nation lives up to the expectations set by Big Mistake Factory, an interim EP released in 2001 that boasted both stronger song writing and more experimentation (synthesizers and strings!) than It’s Not All Good. Fivehead don’t stray too far from the tried-and-true template of 1990s indie-rock: two-guitar arrangements that blur the line between rhythm and lead, a subtle but strident rhythm section, and guys with untrained voices singing with enough charm to compensate for the missed notes. The band’s influences ring out loud and clear, but Guests of the Nation manages to equal (and, in some cases, surpass) those bands’ best work. Through expert sequencing and occasional instrumental surprises, the band keeps the album from getting monotonous over the course of its 14 tracks. With the exception of one admittedly pleasant ambient snippet that bisects the album, not a single track can be construed as filler. Can you say the same about ANY Pavement album?
Fivehead begin the album on a high note with “Big Mistake Factory,” in which guitarist John Hunt sings in his husky drawl about pursuing your dreams against the well-meaning but cynical advice of your friends. Hunt’s assertion, “doubt is the sound of a backward heart at work,” is one of many succinct one-liners that pepper every song he sings. The song itself is a marvel of compression, cramming three verses and a chorus into less than two minutes, and it’s what GBV would sound like if Bob Pollard’s focus was planted more toward American stalwarts like the Replacements than British Invasion bands. “Teen Sensation,” another John Hunt highlight, sports the meanest bass line I’ve heard in a while, as well as another great one-liner about the difficulty of maintaining a friendship with a wild card: “It’s hard to trust somebody running naked in the rain.” There’s also “Wallet Chain,” a laid-back ditty that single-handedly renders Preston School of Industry obsolete. Against sweet acoustic guitars and pedal steels, Hunt croons triplets written with a poet’s economy: “A walk in the park where they’re all getting high/She grabbed him by his coat and tie/Taking it easy was not what she had in mind.” “Hem and Haw” obliterates Ugly Casanova in a similar manner, with shockingly nimble banjo playing underscoring Hunt’s rants about being in a messed-up state of mind.
Guests of the Nation also marks the arrival of Fivehead’s OTHER great songwriter, guitarist Beaty Wilson. His high, thin croon forms a more uplifting counterpoint to Hunt’s world-weariness, and his songs have more discernible hooks. Whereas John’s songs are the ones you’ll comb through for quotes in e-mail signatures, Beaty’s are the ones you’ll sing along to like a buffoon while cruising in your car (or is that just ME?). “Goodie the Rat,” a longtime staple in the band’s repertoire, is a nonsensical ditty that sounds like Built to Spill covering Pavement’s “Painted Soldiers.” “Antidote” is the album’s cheeriest song. Glockenspiels harmonize with guitar harmonics, and when Beaty (almost) hits the high note in the chorus, he sounds like a little boy lost in a watch factory. Beaty gets to end the album on a high note with the slide-drenched “Exe,” which boasts a sarcastic couplet that one would normally expect from Hunt: “It used to be amusing back in ‘92/Can’t get away with the sh*t that you used to do.”
Beaty’s wrong, though. OF COURSE you can get away with the same things you did 12 years ago if you do them well enough to justify such stubbornness. Fivehead prove it with Guests of the Nation, an album that sounds positively anachronistic at a time in which critics are drooling over “dance-punk” and “New Weird America.” If you believe these critics, apparently NO ONE wants to listen to a good, solid indie-rock record anymore. However, I am of the belief that originality isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for making good music, and Fivehead have more than enough going for them to compensate for their adherence to an old sound. If they continue to make records of this quality in 2016, I’ll still be listening, and I’m willing to wager that I won’t be the only one. Fivehead has finally arrived, and they’re ready for the big leagues, so welcome them with open arms. They deserve it---and not just because they’re hard working, beer-drinking, blue-collar nice-guy underdogs.
(And they’re great live, too!)