Thursday, May 20, 2010
Review: Band of Horses - Infinite Arms
If I were Ben Bridwell, I'd want an identity change too. Throughout their history, Bridwell's Band of Horses has drawn comparisons to My Morning Jacket, which makes sense. Neither band has a stable, identifiable sound. Instead, both bands sound like several other bands in a schizophrenic back-and-forth between the spacey experimentation of the Flaming Lips to the alt-country-pop of early Wilco. Band of Horses' debut record, Everything All the Time (2006), drew comparisons to My Morning Jacket from almost every reviewer of almost every music magazine and blog. But what many of these reviews didn’t quite mention was that Everything All the Time sounded like only certain My Morning Jacket songs: The spacey, dream-popesque indie sound laced with a little southern rock and Americana. The follow up, 2007's Cease to Begin, reversed this equation, moving the southern rock and Americana elements to the forefront and pushing the spacey dream-pop to the background. Unfortunately for Bridwell, this sounded a lot like certain other My Morning Jacket songs.
Hence, the need for an identity change. Hence, 2010's Infinite Arms.
While this album will draw fewer obvious comparisons to My Morning Jacket's sound, in a lot of ways it reminds me of the direction MMJ took with their most recent album, Evil Urges (2008): With the exception of a few riskier songs, Evil Urges is a predominantly safe record dominated by a 1970s sound and vanilla songwriting. In a word, dad-rock. Regrettably, the same holds true for Infinite Arms.
On first listen, I was drawn in by Infinite Arms’ two opening tracks. “Factory” begins with a drum roll into swelling strings and acoustic strums that would almost find a place on a Belle & Sebastian record. The minor key hook of the chorus showcases Bridwell’s Americana influences and, though it feels trite to say, the influence of Jim James. “Compliments” is one of the only stomping numbers on the album. Unfortunately, this is one of the few up-tempo moments in an otherwise plodding album. Here Bridwell’s smoky South Carolina voice comes through clearest, though it doesn’t quite fit with the sound of the song. Still, “Compliments,” the first single, is one of the few highlights on the album.
After those first two songs, I had high hopes for the album. I thought, maybe, just maybe, Infinite Arms would live up to the hype from mainstream music reviewers. But then the next eight tracks move us into the vanilla dad-rock sound that dominates the album. The choruses are all catchy but safe and bland. Many of these songs—“Blue Beard,” “On My Way Back Home,” “Dilly”—even transcend dad-rock and begin to approach mom-rock. It’s not Sarah McLachlan, but still the type of music you could play in the car without your mom objecting.
“Older” is the one shining moment in this stretch of dull songs, and it is possibly the strongest song on the album, though I can’t help but think it would be nothing more than a forgettable role player on many albums, including Band of Horses’ first two. At the very least, “Older” is the catchiest song on the album, with crunchy southern rock guitars blending well with Bridwell’s Jim-James-meets-the-Beach-Boys vocals. Here his voice sounds most country, though there’s something unconvincing about it. Sadly, this boy from South Carolina sounds less authentically southern than California-bred John Fogerty ever did.
Just as Infinite Arms begins strong, so it ends, with four of the stronger tracks creating a solid frame around the blandness of the middle bulk of the album. “NW Apt” returns us to the up-tempo stomp of “Compliments,” a welcome return after so many safe down-tempo tracks. Here we get a sense of urgency and a sense of soul the album seemed to lack. Following “NW Apt” is the closing number, “Neighbor,” a slow piano ballad that eventually builds into the only true cathartic moment on the album. This catharsis is a solid way to end an otherwise forgettable album because it leaves us wanting more. But what we want is more of this—more of the album’s highlights, but they are few and far between. Literally.
And that’s the biggest problem with Infinite Arms. While there are a handful of strong songs spaced throughout the album, we have to wade through so many vanilla numbers to get to them, and so many of them seem to run at the same slow tempo with the same songwriting formula. Sure they’re catchy, but they’re predictable. They’re safe. And if I had to sum up the album with one word, it would be “safe.”