Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Band of Horses - Mirage Rock

Band of Horses - Mirage Rock 
Columbia Records, 2012
Three stars

Band of Horses are one of those bands that, at least in my experience, are easy to like and hard to love. Over the course of three albums, they’ve made a lot of music I adore, but they’ve also constructed a fair number of songs that I don’t particularly care for. The haunting and bombastic “The Funeral” got my attention back in the fall of 2006 after they dropped their debut, Everything all the Time, but it’s still the only song from that record I come back to with any regularity. 2007’s Cease to Begin was their peak, with great singles like “Is There a Ghost” and “No One’s Gonna Love You,” and a consistently solid set beyond them, while 2010’s Infinite Arms took a stab at alt-country and came up short with lukewarm reviews. Contrary to popular belief, that one actually felt wholly organic and enjoyable to me, and the highlights (“Evening Kitchen,” “On My Way Back Home,” “Trudy”) were textbook summer night serenades.

The band’s fourth full-length, titled Mirage Rock holds onto the alt-country and folk influences, but melds them with the more indie-rock/chamber pop-based tradition that they had going on their first two records. Case-in-point is the first single “Knock Knock,” which bursts out of the gate with fuzzy guitars, “woah-oh” vocal lines, and an infectious refrain melody. “How to Live” is even better, boasting a vintage southern-folk lilt and a dusky, wistful guitar solo that recalls ‘90s Wallflowers records with effortless grace. Things go downhill after that though. “Slow Cruel Hands of Time” shows promise, but never goes anywhere, and “A Little Biblical” is a thoroughly disposable piece of filler. “Shut-In Tourist” is an improvement, offering gorgeous vocal harmonies, a pristine melodic line, and a cascading musical accompaniment that lends it an almost otherworldly feel. But the problem with Band of Horses, at least this time around, is that their music doesn’t really engage. There’s no measure of intensity or power here, no trace of the band that got their start by kicking down the door on “The Funeral.” On Mirage Rock, frontman Ben Bridwell and Co. seem content with just making glorified background music.

The record gets shaken awake somewhat during its second half, thanks largely to the propulsive “Electric Music,” which sounds remarkably like a Rolling Stones number. The credit for that goes in part to legendary producer and recording engineer Glyn Johns, a guy who made his name working with The Who and the Stones themselves, and who mans the boards here with seasoned assurance. You can hear the same throwback sensibility in “Feud,” which keeps the amplifiers turned up, but sadly the song ends up as an angry, melodically-challenged mess. Its still more appealing than “Everything’s Gonna Be Undone,” though, which returns to the same kind of safe, complacent, and sleepy songwriting style that killed the momentum of the record’s first side. Everything undone indeed, and back to square one.

Luckily, penultimate cut “Long Vows” is a sweeping alt-country ballad that could have fit on Infinite Arms, and the haunting “Heartbreak on the 101” closes the album out on its highest note. Bridwell splits vocal duties with lead guitarist Tyler Ramsey, only coming in at the two-and-a-half minute mark to carry the album out, but Ramsey’s ragged vocals do the song a huge favor. “Couldn’t really think that I’d just stand aside/Take up something new or start another life,” he growls, channeling some shattered cross between Johnny Cash and Tom Waits. An unsettling cello line gives way to a full-fledged string section once Ramsey passes the baton off to Bridwell for the anchor leg, and Bridwell’s usually pleasant and lilting vibrato sounds mournfully unsettling, only ratcheting up the tension further. It’s an eerie fade-out to a frustrating album, a break-up song where sadness and rage bubble just below the surface, and it gives the otherwise tepid Mirage Rock a note of redemption and electricity just before the needle lifts.

Unfortunately, a handful of good moments aren’t enough to outweigh an album jammed with songwriting that just doesn’t amount to anything. Bridwell’s voice is as distinctive as ever and the band is still the tight musical outfit they have always been (even though the members have constantly rotated), while Glyn Johns lives up to his legacy, making everything sound authentic and nostalgic. But all of that means when the material isn’t strong, and for most of Mirage Rock, it isn’t. I’ve hoped for a long time that Band of Horses would eventually make a classic, a record that would blend their indie-rock and Americana influences to the perfect degree, and one whose mix of melancholic strains and brash chamber pop ideals would channel all of their best qualities into one place. But ever since Cease to Begin, they’ve fallen into a trend of diminishing returns, and with Mirage Rock, they’ve finally crossed into mediocrity. Worse, they've lost sight of what made them special in the first place, and what they found to replace it just rings hollow. Looking forward from their worst release to date, it’s getting harder to believe that a magnum opus is anywhere in the future of Band of Horses, but at least their Greatest Hits will still be killer.

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