Narrow Head Houston, TX
Truly great pop songs do not require a cheery outlook in order to work, nor do they pander to expectations of syrupy sweet easy-listening. Rather, the best pop music is a matter of refinement and pure intention, of dialing groove to melody so that the two might puncture the malaise of everyday living in unison, revealing some brief, sober truth about our shared human condition. On their third LP, Moments of Clarity, Narrow Head have achieved precisely this feat. Traversing the depths of massive, churning riffs, often distorted to the point of violence, bouncing, lock-grooved rhythms, and crystalline, gorgeously constructed hooks, the Houston-based outfit puts on a masterclass in the art of writing songs that match the pain, pleasure, and confusion of modern living. Each track is sentimental without being precious, heavy without unnecessary griminess, pop-forward without letting the listener off the hook easy: these songs ask for some form of hurt or desire to be paid back to them in return, some promise that the listener is putting equal skin into the game.
The record’s title came to vocalist/guitarist Jacob Duarte in an ambient, almost haunting fashion. The months surrounding the release of their prior record, 12th House Rock, were marked by a series of personal losses and spiritual trials. Throughout the writing process of this most recent record, the turn of phrase “moments of clarity” appeared to materialize wherever Duarte looked in an almost serendipitous fashion, be it while listening to the radio or talking with friends at the bar. The notion of moments clarity seemed to coalesce as if it were a totem to the desire to keep on living, a counterweight to the self-inflected damage and depravity that defined much of 12th House Rock’s lyrics. “The phrase created a space for me to reflect upon my own life,” Duarte admits, “since our last record I’ve had plenty of moments of realization like that… when you experience friends dying, you’re forced to see life a little differently.”
Moments of Clarity reflects this matured sense of purpose. Longtime Narrow Head fans will undoubtedly still recognize the band’s signature marriage of brutality and grace, and many of the core themes of desolation, loss, and self-medication that the band established on their prior records Satisfaction (2016, re-issued by Run for Cover in 2021) and 12th House Rock (2020, Run for Cover) continue to haunt the edges of Moments of Clarity. All the same, Moment of Clarity rises above the darkness with a sense of elegant repose, like a butterfly-winged figure-skater skimming the hardened rim of a freezing black lake. While not exactly optimistic in outlook, these songs simmer with a certain life affirming desire, a burning passion to transcend pure cynicism and self-destruction, if only for even a few seconds.
The record’s opening track, “The Real,” wastes no time establishing Moments of Clarity’s overarching themes, diving headfirst into the pains and pleasures of carrying on living, as well as the unending struggle of attempting to approach honest self-reflection. The song’s streamlined chorus, “how good does it feel, to be you, to be real?,” strikes like a double-entendre, reading equally as a dose of softened, self-deprecating cynicism, as well as a sigh of ecstatic relief at having reached a temporary state of weightlessness. These are the competing thematic poles which the ensuing entirety of Moments of Clarity straddles: bleak solitude gushing into the sudden tranquility of an unexpected oasis, loneliness becoming communion, communion becoming loneliness once more. The title track evokes images of numbed psyches and deep loathing, yet all the while holds out a sense of forgiveness in not knowing how to get better, a sense of forgiveness in the fact that, “it’s ok to say you want more.” Certain tracks carve out space to celebrate the faith and recognition found in the company of others (“You fall into me, Caroline, don’t go” – “Caroline”), while others plunge the listener back into the thickets of desperate reclusiveness (“Alone again is time well spent, alone forever falling” – “Gearhead”), dashing any sense of permanent bliss, yet without moralizing the desire to want this bliss all the same. A sense of cold stillness permeates the record’s lyrics, evoking the learned grace one inherits from staring down the pains of living without fully succumbing to them. As Duarte sings on the penultimate track “The Comedown”: “For what it’s worth I’m turning over, and you should know I’m growing older. I lost myself, and it feels so good.”
This newfound lust for life is baked into the essence of the songs themselves. Each riff, melody, and drum fill has been rigorously constructed and pushed towards its most simplified, base instinct. There are no frills or unnecessary ornamentation, only pure sensation in the absence of conscious thought. Duarte credits the presence of Sonny DiPerri (NIN, Protomartyr, My Bloody Valentine), who recorded, mixed, and produced the record, with elevating Narrow Head’s sound. Prior to recording, the band spent a week with DiPerri at a house in Sherman, TX, reworking and refining the record with a sense of surgical intent, sculpting each melody and hook until it had reached its logical conclusion. “Sonny really pushed us early on,” Duarte notes, “he’d sit us down and say, ‘you guys are heavy, these choruses are good, but you shouldn’t be afraid to take this all the way and make it an actual pop song.’” The band then relocated with DiPerri to Jeff Friedl’s (Devo, A Perfect Circle) home-studio in Los Angeles, where they completed the tracking of the record under the reprieve of an uncharacteristically mild Californian late-summer.
The addition of Kora Puckett (Solo, Bugg, Sheer Mag), who was promoted from touring guitarist to permanent band member following the release of 12th House Rock, further bolstered the writing process, expanding the band’s traditional songwriting trio of Duarte, guitarist William Menjivar, and drummer Carson Wilcox and pushing the songs towards a broader-minded, arrangement-by-committee register. An ecstatic sense of group cohesion shines through in each individual performance. The songs on Moments of Clarity lurch and pulse with a sense of breathless, single-minded determination, reflecting the fine-tuned tightness of a band coming off of a heavy touring cycle for 12th House Rock that saw them play alongside the likes of Quicksand, Turnstile, Gatecreeper, Chubby and the Gang, Young Guv, and Fury. The band eschews any sort of overt reliance upon studio effects in order to convey dynamic shifts, leaning instead upon the strength of the songwriting itself, as well as their intimate familiarities with one another as musicians, to carry the momentum of each track directly.
Both the band’s collective synergy and intense sense of purpose help to propel the songs on Moments of Clarity to soaring new highs. The title track tunnels through a thick morass of sticky rhythms like a mechanical worm before finally emptying out into the light of day, exposing a melody so triumphant and stadium-sized in its confidence that it almost seems to channel the ghosts of Knebworth 1996. “Caroline” captures the band at their most nakedly pop-inflected moment yet, washes of melodics and A/B song-structures subsumed in an ocean-spray of glimmering distortion, creating an effect akin to a teenage emo kid on trucker speed discovering the primal joy of The Cleaners From Venus for the first time. On the other end of Moments of Clarity’s sonic spectrum, “Gearhead” finds Narrow Head approaching new depths of heaviness. Fueled by a massive riff that nods towards the pure evil, “everything is bigger in Texas” attitude of their friends in Power Trip, Iron Age, and Mammoth Grinder, the band unravels syncopated bursts of pummeling kinetic energy, weaving between subtly gripping melodies and utterly bleak breakdowns in unison like a cracking digital whip. Solitude, melancholy, and revelation bleed into each other throughout the LP, transporting the listener through a vast terrain of emotional spaces, from industrial drum samples and erotic self-sabotage (“Flesh and Solitude”), to drawling Midwestern-inflected depression and acoustic guitars that evoke the hum of dawn as it breaks in a freezing living room (“Breakup Song”; “The Comedown”), to synth lines that sound like a ghost fizzing through the speakers of an empty Coney Island parking lot (“The World”) and melon-twisting drum machine pulses (“Soft to Touch”).
With Moments of Clarity, Narrow Head dashes away any shadow of romantic nostalgia or indulgent self-deprecation. Channeling equal parts pop-star cockiness and weathered sobriety, the band has, in the truest and most basic sense, arrived at a record that only they could have written. Moments of Clarity does not speak to or build upon the past. Rather, it cuts straight to the heart of the matter, taking the struggle, brilliance, and mystery of contemporary life as its direct subject.