Release Date: Jun 10, 2016
Record label: Interscope
There have been times over the six years since Ben Bridwell and co released the Grammy nominated Infinite Arms – that perfect capture of open-vista American travelogue – when we might have worried it would end up as their brass plate. Certainly its 2012 successor, Mirage Rock, promised much and largely under-delivered, and live set Acoustic At The Ryman apart, there’s been nothing of note since. Relief all round then that their fifth album is a shimmering thing of beauty; a fresh summer breeze blowing in full of character and heart and sweeping away the dirge and disappointment of their last outing.
After the mainstream ambitions of Infinite Arms and Mirage Rock, Band of Horses’s fifth album makes something of a triumphant return to the wide-eyed, dreamy vulnerability that marked the Seattle band’s first two records. The default mode is anthemic indie-rock that pinpoints the place where wistfulness and euphoria collide, then showers it in effervescent harmonies and melodies. But the songs run the gamut from country-rock to Hag’s unlikely, reverb-laden nod to OMD’s synth hit Souvenir.
For a while after 2012's Mirage Rock, Band of Horses' awkward, uncomfortable attempt at the mainstream, it seemed possible that the album would be the band's last artistic statement. Which given the excellence of their first two records (heck, I even like 80% of Infinite Arms) would have been a true shame for a band who seemed to be placing the need for commercial success ahead of quality. The future looked uncertain and long-term fans were fearful.
The strange demise of Band of Horses remains difficult to explain. They had the world at their feet, once upon a time; snapped up by Sub Pop in their early days, with their debut, Everything All the Time, positively fizzing with promise. Structurally, it wasn’t ever going to break the folk-flecked indie rock mould, but the textures were lush and pretty, and there were so many big hooks and choruses, especially on the teen-drama-friendly 'The Funeral'.
There are more than a few songs in the indie canon about that place where nothing can bother you, the physical space that acts as creative muse and comfort. A notable one is Weezer’s “In the Garage”, the KISS and X-Men poster-plastered place where Rivers Cuomo can feel safe and sing his songs. While previous Band of Horses records favored grandiose stabs at epic, pastoral, southern rock, the opener to their new album immediately grounds them in that kind of songwriting sweet spot: “Filthy room/ Guitars out of tune,” Ben Bridwell coos through a golden psych-tinged haze.
The fifth Band of Horses record opens up in a confused drifting bubble: "filthy room, guitars out of tune," Ben Bridwell sings on "Dull Times," against a languidly spacey backing that suggests a pacific Pink Floyd. But rather than the sound of falling apart, it's an evocation of finding your footing ("Home is where you are," he confides), as the song segues into "The Moon," a confident rocker where his voice tilts skyward and gravelly anthemic guitars follow the lead. For Band of Horses, balancing impulses – between anxiety and joy, Seventies beard-rock and Nineties sweet-noise bliss – has always been a subtle strength.
There’s a reason why Band of Horses’ music works so well for television and film soundtracks. Ben Bridwell’s boyish vocals, when accompanied by strummed or arpeggiated guitar, make for some of the quaintest and most localized folk-rock in the indie scene, and their lyrical content almost never leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth. The band has generally stuck to this simple yet effective formula for most of their career, and to varying amounts of success.
Why Are You OK? doesn’t sound much like Poco or .38 Special, so longtime fans are likely to hear it as Band of Horses’ best work in nearly a decade on general principle. Don’t assume they’re the majority: Mirage Rock was unfortunate truth-in-advertising for Band of Horses’ ultimate devolution into platitudinal fairground music, but it was still favorably reviewed, debuting at No. 13 on Billboard with even greater success in Europe.
When they pegged studio legend Glyn Johns to helm 2012's Mirage Rock, Band of Horses underwent a bit of retooling to ignite some latent rock spark, while still offering enough mainstream appeal to sustain them at Columbia Records. While not an overwhelming critical success, the album's easy-riding country-rock vibes were enough to vault it into a significant Top 20 placing on Billboard's pop chart. For their follow-up, 2016's Why Are You OK, they hand over the keys to a less-proven and more experimentally oriented captain in Grandaddy frontman Jason Lytle.
If you would've asked Carl and I that we'd still be writing this feature a few months ago, we would've been surprised. But we just can't help ourselves, seeing as this year has been exceptionally rich in terms of album releases. So how did we fare with our monthly "leftovers" this time around? Well ….
Illustrious debuts often propel and mar equally. On LP five, Seattle-forged quintet Band of Horses aim to match Southern alt-rocker Everything All the Time. The now-South Carolinians intermittently evoke that inaugural 2006 disc by employing a fresh producer, Grandaddy mage Jason Lytle, who stamps his former band's downtrodden space rock into BoH's festival formula.