Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Band of Horses - "Mirage Rock" Review

It is a common topic of discussion amongst many people that not only write critically about music, but even those who think critically about music: "Is it better for an artist to stick with what works, or throw nothing but curveballs" with each coming release. Even the biggest fan of a particular group can grow disinterested very quickly if their favorite band sways too heavily one way or another. Personally speaking, I can remember instances when many of my good friends lost track of bands like Brand New or Wavves after they revamped their sound.

But the argument can go both ways; I can get lost in Belle & Sebastian albums because they've never really changed their style of music since they became popular. But Belle & Sebastian remain one of my favorite artists, ever. Even earlier this year, bands like Beach House and The xx have put out albums that are strikingly similar to their previous efforts, and some people hate that, others (like me) don't really mind it.

Enter Band of Horses, a Seattle-based band that has focused most of their efforts into playing crossover songs from country, to rock, to pop. They hit it big with songs like "The Funeral" and "No One's Gonna Love You" each track off of a separate album (Everything All The Time and Cease To Begin), and the band garnished a lot of attention as another Fleet Foxes/My Morning Jacket, and gained popularity to boot.

Their first two albums were near perfection in my eyes, gloriously mixing in elements of pop and country into their "indie-alt" sound, stretching boundaries and making it okay to like country music again, because, well, it wasn't really country music.

In the midst of the somewhat nerd-rock country music they were creating, were sparkling lyrics that could make you laugh at times, and cry at others. "Weed Party" from Everything All The Time is a song about exactly what you'd think it would be, and yet the band still managed to put out touching tracks like "Our Swords," a night-time favorite of mine, "The General Specific," a pure American song about a road trip, and "Marry Song," a song written for a specific wedding.

Then with their third major release, Infinite Arms, the band lost their luster, by trying to be too lustrous. The album was over-produced, and while some say that was the "next step" in their progression after Cease To Begin (which featured some tracks that were heavily produced with electronics and/or "switches" as I like to call them). But it was just a step too large, in my opinion; biting off more than they could chew with the album. And not only that, but lyrically the album just flopped: "Factory" is almost as laughable as it gets, as lead singer Ben Bridwell sings "Now and later I was thinking it over by the snack machine/ I thought about you and a candy bar/ The Now & Laters I've got stuck between my teeth/ I fell asleep to the greatest movie of the year"

But that song remains one of the band's most popular, and Infinite Arms was nominated for a Grammy. So it shows what I know.

And now, we have the band's fourth major release, Mirage Rock, released on Tuesday via Columbia Records. Opening with the single "Knock Knock," the backing vocals enter with a "whooo-whoooo" that give it the feel of a train entering a ghost town.

The album continues along on a steady pace, with the group getting back to what they did best, country-laced-rock songs that are riddled with fantastic lyrics. And as much as I hate that the record industry has turned in to a "Who Produced YOUR Record?!" scene, it's worth noting that Glyn Johns produced this album. I'm not going to lie, kids, this guy is a legend: English-born producer who has worked with the likes of Led Zeppelin, The Who, Traffic, The Rolling Stones and Joe Cocker.

And I wouldn't bring this up if the album didn't feel important. Yes, Mirage Rock is good. The band grows up from the foolishness of "Weed Party" and "Our Swords" without making me feel alienated for liking them-- they still sound like the same band as they were before, but have left their mistakes behind them. The album features great tracks that sound like they could have been spectacular B-Sides to their previous albums.

"Long Vows" sounds like a follow-up to "Marry Song" (it isn't), "A Little Biblical" and "How To Live" sound like they're removed from the best parts of Infinite Arms, each on their own, toe-tapping pop songs, while "Everything's Gonna Be Undone" and "Slow Cruel Hands of Time" are the laid back country-infused down-tempo tracks that listeners have come to love and expect from Band of Horses. And each song's lyrics are at least not distractingly bad, so it appears that Band of Horses hit a stride while writing the album (pun semi-intended).

There are two polarizing moments in the album, however, and lie in the songs "Dumpster World" and "Heartbreak on the 101." The former might just be one of the worst songs I've heard all year, especially from a band that has such high expectations. The layering of the vocals and distortion within the instrumentals make it sound like an Incubus song or Foo Fighters' worst track ever. Meanwhile, "Heartbreak on the 101" is an early favorite of mine, with Bridwell's voice reaching low notes that I don't ever recall hearing him hit before; almost Tom Wait-esque with a little less of a growl. However, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if this track gets absolutely panned by fans and critics alike.

Band of Horses can now be placed upon the elite bands whose career has spanned long enough to apply the ever-famous-yet-ever-cliche phrase "Is it better to burn out or fade away?" Indie-Alternative/Rock bands of their peer group have fallen victim to both since 2004, when Band of Horses debuted Everything All The Time. And although it's easy to say that Band of Horses has already peaked, with their previous works being so spectacular, Mirage Rock can at least spark the debate that the band has a little bit of greatness left in their tank, and maybe--just maybe, the band is still on the climb.

Rating: 3.7/5


  1. I love how in-depth this review is! Appreciate the honesty too. I do agree with you about the country comment. I think I noticed this too when I was watching their performance on Letterman. I feel it's definitely the twangy guitars that move it closer to the country genre though. If you didn't get a chance to watch them perform on Letterman, the whole thing is online, and I really recommend checking it out!

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