Band of Horses
Label: Brown Records/Fat Possum/Columbia Records
Band of Horses have been through a lot since their formation in 2004. A name change, lineup changes (there are now as many former members of Band of Horses as current members) and “The Funeral,” a commercial breakthrough that seems somewhat at odds with their association with the Northwest folk-rock revival. But for all those changes, their third and latest album, Infinite Arms, is pretty much what you’d expect from their previous two- melodic, mournful, vaguely country-rockish and solidly satisfactory.
Of course, a great deal of that has to do with the unmistakable voice of Ben Bridwell, de facto band leader and sole remaining original member. Although comparisons to both Jim James and Robin Pecknold are apt, Bridwell’s vocals still remain distinct among his peers, shaded in reverb and melancholy. Infinite Arms wisely highlights this vocal secret weapon, mixing Bridwell’s voice far to the front of the album around the heavily echoing guitars and pounding rhythms. Although their basic sound is essentially unchanged (and perhaps they may have already hit the apex of their sound with Cease to Begin’s incredible single, “No One’s Gonna Love You”), their mixture of chiming, crystalline guitars and melodramatic melodies is fully-formed enough to continue without distinctly innovating further.
The album opens with “Factory,” a gloriously soaring combination of synthesizers and enigmatic lyrics like, “it’s temporary, this place I’m in/ I permanently won’t do this again,” swiftly following up with “Compliments,” which may stand as their most sinister-sounding song. A deliberate stomp and a fuzzy guitar line stand around chorus, “If there’s a God up in the air/ Someone looking over everyone/ At least you got something to fall back on” which sounds reassuring until you start to think about it. The following “Laredo” is unfortunately not their version of the ancient cowboy lament (instead, an atypically generic fuzz-filled rocker) and “Blue Beard” dabbles in some Fleet Foxes-style vocal harmonies to great effect.
But it’s actually several of the quieter, largely acoustic songs that become most affecting as the album goes on. The title track begins with a strummed guitar and a quiet electric lick that could almost be the Smiths on a gentle day, and a quietly sad mood only highlighted by peculiarly domestic lines such as, “I love the morning/ I like to listen/ To 4 A.M. birdies” contrasting “Out on the sea /There’s an animal below me.” Similarly, “Evening Kitchen” builds such a peaceful emotion with its plucked guitars and harmonies that the tragic delays of the lyrics almost comes as a surprise.
But Bridwell and company largely return to their bombastic, woeful rock roots for the closers “NW Apt.” and “Neighbor.” It may be indicating that they’re satisfied with the distinct sound they’ve carved out (or more cynically, may be representative of their recent move from indie label stalwarts Sub Pop to Columbia), but Infinite Arms is everything that you could expect from a Band of Horses records and nothing more. They’re not innovating right now, but they are reassuring.