Ben Bridwell’s Americana merchants Band Of Horses have always peddled a line in emotional, wide-eyed and heartfelt romanticism. Their first two albums, 2005’s Everything All The Time and particularly the follow up, Cease To Begin from 2007, were successful negotiations of the terrain between “mellow” and “dull”, and produced at least two gems, in the form of Funeral and Great Salt Lakes. Having now left Sub Pop for Columbia for their third release, it is time to see whether this balancing act can once again pay dividends.
More noticeable this time round is the extremity of the debt to the ’70s and ’80s that this band carries. This is the sound of radio-friendly AOR, and is most strongly exhibited on the amiable Dilly, and Trudy: a track so strongly reminiscent of REO Speedwagon in vocal and general inoffensive appeal that it could be a lost track from their 1980 hit album Hi Infidelity. There are also, erm, rumours of Fleetwood Mac in Compliments and Older, while Way Back Home’s vocal does the beatific Beach Boys-alike thing so many bands in recent years affect (see also: Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear et al).
A few tracks stand out. Opener Factory is a delight, the swell of strings and accompanying melody, coupled with regretful words describing how “it gets lonely” and the “some kind of sorry state” of the narrator evoking genuine emotions. Also nice are the harmonies of Way Back Home and Dilly, with its aforementioned amiability and slightly more uptempo feel. More prevalent, however, are the unmemorable tracks. Compliments, Laredo, Intimate Arms, Evening Kitchen and Bartles + James all share a curious failure to lodge in the listener’s memory, with a noticeable lack of decent hooks to cling to. Overall the sound is frustratingly levelled-out, untextured and overproduced.
In a similar way, the lyrics make reference to a kind of romanticised heartbreak, along the lines of “Oh my love, you don’t even call” (Laredo), “How could you smile and walk away?” (Blue Beard) and “Every house not a home” (Bartles + James) – sticking more to a generalised sense of malaise rather than telling any clearly discernable stories. The impression is that the same tale is being told on every track, just with slightly adapted words each time, and this too undoubtedly contributes to the sense of overall blandness with which this album is suffused.
Ultimately it seems that for whatever reason – the change of label, the personnel changes, the passage of time, who knows – this is a band who have begun to lose that delicate sense of balance with which they have previously negotiated the dividing line between moving, melodic balladry and a safe, harmonious but rather soulless form of songwriting. It is to be sincerely hoped that they find that balance again as when they get it just right, as on Factory but little else here, it results in some pretty wonderful music.