Local Music Reviews
Federal Heights = Bright Eyes + Andy Shauf + Townes Van Zandt
Together, young songwriters Callum Dingley and Jack Behrens of Federal Heights are an heirloom seed in the SLC music scene. Seeds don’t require advice or information, only care and nurturing; under the proper conditions, beauty is inevitable. This comparison has nothing to do with the duo’s teenage status or the suggestion that they will eventually be great musicians. Just like a seed, the fate of Federal Heights is predetermined to create satisfying, sincere artistry—their recent self-titled album proves it.
Released just before Behrens moved out of state to attend college, Federal Heights plays like an origin story—an ode to the people and places that make us what we are. The eponymous album itself refers to the foothills neighborhood in the northwest corner of Salt Lake, just between the University of Utah and the Wasatch Mountains.
On “Joss Fong”—presumably titled after a popular Vox reporter—Behrens sings, “It was fall again / It’s funny how it happens / You were headed east for better drugs and the Ivy Leagues.” It’s a bittersweet reflection on a completed chapter of life. The lyrics aren’t bogged down by the personal specifics of moving away from home and into the dorms. Instead, Behrens and Dingley manage to zoom out and pursue the nuance of tone and emotion. It’s this literary maturity that makes Federal Heights such a promising debut.
Another album highlight is closing track “Sixo’s Last Love Song.” With its percussive minor chords and dissonant piano accompaniment, the Behrens-penned track draws on Conor Oberst’s (of Bright Eyes) early 2000s work. Songs like “Lua” and “First Day of My Life” have served as a sort of magnetic north for songwriting teenagers for almost 20 years, but “Sixo’s Last Love Song” never feels like a carbon copy. At their best, Behrens’ lyrics feel entirely his own, filtered through familiar influences but straight from the heart.
A prime example from “Sixo’s Last Love Song” reads, “Dear, whenever you are near / These broken fragments re-adhere / Laughing strapped to a burning tree / Just to leave you with a piece of me.” Precise lines like these can only come from within. Importantly, they’re also loose enough to let listeners engage on their own terms.
Behrens handles singing duties on most of Federal Heights. He also plays guitar, using folksy “Travis Picking,” cowboy chords and drop-D tuning. Dingley plays gracefully laid-back bass lines, and both members write songs. The pair DIY’d the whole thing on an 8-track cassette mixing desk. The result is fuzzy and unpolished, like a series of demos released three decades after the original mixes hit the radio. Behrens croons cautiously, still finding his timbre as a young vocalist who seemingly gleaned the basics by listening to Townes Van Zandt and Elliott Smith.
Another strength of Federal Heights is its courage to tread beyond the love song monopoly that pervades most singer-songwriter catalogs. The opening verse of “Loondown” embodies a character caught in the throes of contemporary internet angst: “The young brash isolate / Cares only to mimic / The hateful smog of ideologues … / He finds a stage to make his noise,” Behrens sings. Again, he serves up a well-composed verse that’s both smart and restrained. Behrens possesses an uncommon ability to hold back his own cleverness in order to serve the music.
It’s exciting to hear original music from musicians whose daily high school uniforms undoubtedly included a pair of headphones. With streaming services, it’s easier than ever to broaden sonic horizons, but it’s still up to individuals to put in the time. Federal Heights hints at Led Zeppelin, John Fahey and Nick Drake—an auspicious blend of references, considering that Behrens and Dingley aren’t yet old enough to buy cigarettes in their home state. Still, Federal Heights have built up a foundation of beloved records that they can continue to fruitfully mine for a lifetime.
The musicians behind Federal Heights no longer live in the same state, so it’s possible that future projects will arrive under yet-unknown monikers. In any case, both members have charted an open-ended course into a life of scribbling lyrics and fiddling with chord progressions. Some people simply can’t help but write good songs. –Austin Beck-Doss
Read more reviews of local indie singer-songwriters:
Local Review: Angela Isaacs – Missing Cat!
Local Review: Catgrove St. – Glory to the Unborn !