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Music Review: Band of Horses – Cease to Begin

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As great of a history as Sub Pop has 2007 is surely a banner year for it.

They own the unique distinction of having three of the current most iconic indie rock bands on their roster: The Shins, Iron and Wine, and Band of Horses, each of which has released an (excellent) album in mid-late 2007.

Sub Pop also has a knack – for better or for worse -for imprinting their bands onto the unwitting music fans’ subconscious. Thanks much in part to the Zach Braff quirk-a-thon Garden State, one could hardly navigate the pop cultural terrain of 2004 without encountering the sweet refrains of the Shins’ breakout album Chutes Too Narrow wafting through the air like the smell of freshly baked cookies.

As much as it was easy to lament this saturation of a singular exceptional album cum movement, it was just as easy to just enjoy the fact that a good band was finally getting their due for once.

Nestled somewhere between indie pop and country rock, South Carolina-by-way of-Portland’s Band of Horses was afforded a small measure of similar exposure in 2006 (sans the Braff-ing) with their debut Everything All the Time, which set ears a-straining for the follow-up. Cease to Begin is that follow-up and it does not disappoint. Sub Pop and fans of good music should be ecstatic.

There come immediately to mind some criticisms of Cease to Begin that I’ve heard uttered around the indie rock camp fire: It’s too atmospheric; the band is not taking any chances. That said I defy anyone to name another album that will be the ubiquitous indie pop album of 2007 if not Cease to Begin. If it isn’t at least as pervasive as Chutes Too Narrow was all those summers ago, it certainly deserves to be.

Admittedly it was hard to envision what a band as unique as BoH (affectionately in shorthand) might do to follow up Everything All the Time. It’s safe to say that they have delivered the goods, staying true to, yet further honing the dynamic developed in that first album.

It not controversial to claim that much of Band of Horses’ appeal resides with the pleasing voice of singer Ben Bridwell, whose ability to effortlessly deliver sugary sweet vocal melodies transcends that of most male rock vocalists.

But it’s unwise to simply write-off the subtle command of melody the entire band wields throughout Cease to Begin. Using primarily guitars, but occasionally employing banjos, lap-steel, and organ, BoH and producer Phil Ek tease beauty out of every nook and cranny. “Is There a Ghost,” the ethereal lead-off track, highlights Bridwell’s vocal range while the alt-country-esque “Windows Blues” highlights the bands melodic sensitivity.

With lyrics like, “the world’s such a wonderful place” (“Ode to Irc”) and “no one’s ever gonna love you like I do,” (“No One’s Gonna Love You”) some may argue that Cease to Begin is a soft rock album chock full of ballads masquerading as indie pop, which is supposed to be (and usually is) a little less rooted in what could be called saccharine sensibility. Although calling the album soft rock goes a little far, one does have to admit that Cease to Begin is a little on the prom-y side. But, so what? Band of Horses takes a risk by pouring on the sentimentality so thickly. And the gamble pays off. It’s hard not to embrace this album, even if it can meddle on the schmaltzy side.

However, to say that there is a sentimentality about the album isn’t to say that there is a lack of range of mood. From the euphoric “Island on the Coast” to the exuberantly rollicking “The General Specific,” to the melancholic “Cigarettes Wedding Bands” Cease to Begin displays BoH’s song-crafting chops.

And fans of obscure '80s professional basketball players take note, there is even a track called “Detlef Schrempf.” I hate to say this about anything, but “Detlef Schrempf” is a legitimately, hauntingly romantic track with Bridwell claiming that, “I can’t look/At you any other way.” Oh, Ben. You ol’ charmer. *Blush*

Cease to Begin offers a sort of hipster dose of Americana. It’s not that anyone would want to compare Band of Horses to John Mellencamp (Cougar or no), but the spirit within the music captures something uniquely American in its shimmering intensity.

Cease to Begin makes you want to take flight. This is finely crafted pop music without a touch of irony or contrivance and a mature effort that makes other sophomore albums seem adolescent by comparison.

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