Lead singer and guitarist Ben Bridwell and his Seattle-born, now South Carolina-based, quintet Band of Horses has made a big transition in recent years.
Not too long ago, they were underground stars with two successful albums out on Sub Pop (2006’s debut Everything All The Time and 2007’s Cease To Begin). Now, the group is signed to Columbia Records (with smaller imprints Brown and Fat Possum also helping out) and has found itself attaining mainstream market exposure, thanks to popular songs like “The Funeral” being licensed to TV ads, rapper/singer Kid Cudi sampling that same tune for his own creation “The Prayer,” and its current gig as openers for fellow Seattle natives Pearl Jam.
But as they get more mainstream attention, will Band of Horses dramatically change its sound for a wider audience or otherwise lose some of its authenticity like so many rock bands in generations past have once they've gotten a taste of mass appeal? After listening to the group's largely self-produced third album Infinite Arms, that answer appears to be a resounding no.
The band is known for big, soaring, or jangly indie guitars and vocals on excellent jams like “First Song,” “Is There A Ghost,” “Wicked Gil,” and of course, “The Funeral.” But their first two albums also were more or less evenly split with softer, even folky/country-ish tracks, such as “Marry Song,” the My Morning Jacket-ish “St. Augustine” and bouncy, full band acoustic-led numbers like “The General Specific.”
With Infinite Arms’ 12 new tracks, the most they’ve ever put on record (after having recorded 30 for the project), for the first time, there is a definite majority of kinder, gentler tracks on a Band Of Horses album than soaring indie rockers. That's not a direction you go in if you want to appeal to a big-time mainstream audience.
That said, there are still about a handful of upbeat rock tunes present on the new CD, with the excellent “Compliments” and straight-ahead chugger “Northwest Apartment” representing two of them. On another, Bridwell takes the “crossroads” he’s at with himself on midtempo number “Laredo” and contrasts it with cheery, melodic guitar riffs.
Bridwell still has the reedy voice of past albums, most notably on the soft, full band acoustic and percussion-aided “On My Way Back Home.” And it still sounds like My Morning Jacket’s Jim James or Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne singing with America (without much trace of a southern accent, of course).
But he lets other members have their shining moment on this new LP as well, including Tyler Ramsey, whose stunning “Evening Kitchen” is an intimate acoustic guitar piece seemingly recorded on a back porch somewhere in the backwoods of Minnesota (where the majority of Infinite Arms was recorded). And keyboardist Ryan Monroe’s glowing Americana contribution “Older” also stands out.
The best and unquestionably most catchy material here is the sunny pop ditty known as “Dilly,” with its lightly distorted bright electric guitar lines, static, rhythmic keyboard fills, and ear candy vocal harmonies. This tune is so repeat-worthy that it’s bound to be a future hit single.
And finally, full band composition “Blue Beard” boasts phenomenal production on lovely and rootsy five-man group pop vocals, in the intro in particular, where Bridwell and company’s America/Crosby, Stills & Nash-like harmonies echo into the night. The Midwestern sky that he sings about may be grey and cold, but this track is a warm and bright spot on the album.
Infinite Arms’ largely softer direction and its rural, down-home aura has a summery vibe to it, but some older fans looking for more of the big-sounding rock of the past might not be ready for or fully accept it. But good music is good music. And at creating that, Band Of Horses excels more so than ever.
Watch Band Of Horses perform "Laredo" on The Late Show With David Letterman and singer Ben Bridwell join Pearl Jam for a surprise Temple of The Dog cover of "Hunger Strike" at MSG, both from last week.