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At North Elementary’s core, there’s an unforced, natural center that creates the feeling of a pastoral summer day.  The sunny melodies’ carefree shimmy invites a picnic-blanket smooch, while warm keyboard textures undulate gently in the background, trees gently swaying in the breeze. The tempos drift, with occasionally chugging guitars that soon jangle.  The songs never seem anxious to be somewhere.  Like a devil and angel on frontman John Harrison’s shoulders, the music’s pulled between two poles—billowing psych guitar with hazy keyboard swells and power pop/ college rock, all with flashes of folk.

Harrison spent several years in The Comas a decade ago.  That’s when he began working on North Elementary.  Over the interim, they’ve released seven albums and two handfuls of  EPs and 7″s behind a number of different lineups anchored only by Harrison’s wavering, wheedling tenor.  In the battle between the colorful atmospheres and more straightforward hook-laden pop, the latter tends to define their live shows, while the former exercises its prerogatives in the studio.  Everything sounds widescreen yet not necessarily excessive, allowing space for Harrison’s ever-sharp melodies to gain hold.  It’s richness becomes more apparent over time. —Chris Parker

Having toured together for two years as Dylan Gilbert & The Over Easy Breakfast Machine, punk/rock/soul trio Hectorina played their first show under their new name on New Years Eve 2012. Members Dylan Gilbert (Guitar), John Harrell III (Drums) and Zachary Jordan (Bass) have since shared the stage with noteworthy national acts and performed at the 2011 Hopscotch Music Festival, 2014 CMJ Music Marathon in New York City and headlined the opening night of the Indie Grits Film Festival in 2015

In only six songs and 20-odd minutes, Nathan Oliver’s Head In The Sand bounds the length and breadth of the alt-rock canon with a crooked ear and a sure stride. This EP marks the end of an eight-year hiatus for Nathan Oliver, a bedroom project of Nathan White that turns into a full band when you wish hard enough for a return to 2009, when the band last took the stage and America seemed to have a glimmer of hope.

That was also the year White began bouncing from city to city, project to project. His band The Evil Tenors kept him busy writing and performing, and he played with Potluck labelmates Organos and Schooner. But a return to Chapel Hill in late 2015 was a creative homecoming, giving White the freedom to focus on his craft and produce a document that’s both personal and engaging.

Any listener of Head In The Sand can tell that White is a student of alt-rock’s golden age — though one who has mastered the material and made it his own. Take “Marbles,” an irresistible oddball of an opener that kicks you in the Brainiac before launching into a big Nevermind-style chorus; or “Clean Sheets,” a wryly sunny take on longing that sounds like Stephen Malkmus gone pop. Tying it all together is the sense that these songs are lived-in, that they speak to connecting — and not connecting — with the people in our lives. When White sings, “Clean sheets … what’s the point? You’re not here,” his cry is laced with self-deprecating humor. And his voice goes where his songs do, by turns crooning, straining, shouting.

While White’s longtime listeners will no doubt pick up on the familiar influences — notes of R.E.M. and The Shins in “Little Belle,” for example, or a Joey Santiago-inspired guitar lead in “The Exquisite Wait” — they will also notice that his songs have grown more deliberate and complex, his arrangements tighter. “Sing Blue Silver” melds Sonic Youth and The Cure to arrive at payoff that screams “anthem” in a way no prior Nathan Oliver song quite has. Closing HITS is “Kim Mi Young,” a sweet, swaying piece of Americana with male-female vocals that nod to White’s long relationship with Schooner.

Head In The Sand is Nathan Oliver’s third release, following 2009’s Cloud Animals and 2007’s Nathan Oliver. It features drummer Robert Biggers of Le Weekend, D-Town Brass and Audubon Park, and bassist Duncan Webster of Hammer No More The Fingers and Beauty World. Producer Alex Maiolo, whose Seriously Adequate Studio has worked with Sylvan Esso and Polvo, guided the HITS sessions over a long year, and the extended effort shows. “Recording gradually over the course of 2016 provided space for more spontaneous sounds,” White says. But more than that, it fostered a real chemistry in the performances, a feeling that the final product is as much a band effort as it is the fruit White’s considerable songwriting gifts. And as the band continues to evolve, it will return to the same stages it once shared with performers like Neil Halstead, Bombadil and Des Ark.