[EASYGOING COUNTRY-POP] Hanging out with the Parson Red Heads, you get the sense that nothing in the world could shake this band's inner calm and outward joy. Sitting around a table at Bar Bar talking about their new album, the band's members praise each other's work effusively. When they aren't trading stories about their ex-landlord (who was a B-movie actor), they're giving bassist Charlie Hester a good-natured ribbing over his binder full of Magic: The Gathering cards. If the Red Heads are stressing about their upcoming album-release show or about taping an appearance in an episode of Portlandia, they certainly don't show it.
That easygoing spirit is especially surprising considering the band spent five years plying its trade in Los Angeles, a town that seems custom-built for deadening the enthusiasm of even the most creative temperament with business-world bullshit.
The unintended effect of living in a city like L.A., the band explains, is that you end up hunkering down with those closest to you. You either work together or get the hell out while you still have your sanity. For the Parson Red Heads, it was a bit of both.
"We practiced all the time," remembers vocalist/guitarist Evan Way. "Three or four times a week—and played wherever we could." Evan's wife, Brett Marie Way, smiles at that memory, but adds: "We loved it there, but we were always on the lookout for a new place to go. Touring and doing residencies in different cities gave us a chance to explore potential new hometowns."
But the band—which formed in Eugene in 2003 before hitting L.A. two years later—was drawn back to Oregon. After a month-long residency at Portland's White Eagle, all four members relocated to Portland late last year, sound minds in tow.
Whatever lingering feelings of L.A. distress (and nostalgia) that band members may have inside them, the Red Heads have built the perfect outlet in their art. The quartet's new album, Yearling, positively drips with it. The songs wrap you up in the warm embrace of '60s/'70s Laurel Canyon-style folk/country/pop as viewed through a prism of '80s alt-rock, but the band lets in the chill of sadness and regret that makes you want to cuddle up closer.
Even at its most hopeful, the album creaks with melancholy. You want to believe Evan Way when he sings, "Though the clouds in the sky make it hard to see the light/ I know it's over my head coming back again." But when he and his guitar are joined by nothing more than a ghostly pedal steel and the yearning harmonies of his bandmates, the effect haunts rather than heals.
The Red Heads are fully capable of flat-out rocking, too. The most electric song on Yearling is a short blast of power pop called "Kids Hanging Out," anchored by a fearless, Neil Young-like guitar solo. But then, when you compare the Red Heads to other groups—Young, Low, the Byrds—the band seems appreciative of the compliments, but brushes them aside. The Red Heads almost seem surprised that this is the kind of music coming through them.
"I don't want to say that I'm channeling something," says Sam Fowles, who shares songwriting duties with Way, "but this is just what comes out of me."