BAND OF HORSES: CEASE TO BEGIN (2007)
1) Is There A Ghost; 2) Ode To LRC; 3) No One's Gonna Love You; 4) Detlef Schrempf; 5) The General Specific; 6) Lamb On The Lam (In The City); 7) Islands On The Coast; 8) Marry Song; 9) Cigarettes, Wedding Bands; 10) Window Blues.
The recording of this album was marked by huge lineup changes — in fact, just about everyone simply quit, tacitly acknowledging that «Band Of Horses» was the individual brainchild of Ben Bridwell and that Ben Bridwell alone would be responsible for all the creative activity under that moniker. To be fair, new band members Rob Hampton (bass and second guitar) and Creighton Barrett (drums) are both co-credited as writers on each of the album's tracks, but you will have to ask them yourself how much they contributed to the fleshing out of the melodies.
By now, it is clear that Bridwell wants us all to view him as an enigma, and he is in a fairly good position to do it, too, because it does not happen every day that you meet such a transparently roots-rock-sprung artist bent on bending the clichés and conventions of his native genre into odd shapes that either do not make sense at all, or make it in a parallel universe that you couldn't prove to have visited even if you really have. The lyrics are mostly inscrutable (case in point — 'Detler Schrempf', named after a German basketball player but featuring no connection between the guy and the actual words whatsoever). The melodies, in a way, are too.
A few of the songs are fairly «normal» mid-tempo country shuffles, softly brushed drums and steel guitars and what-not ('Marry Song'; 'Window Blues'). Just as often, they only use typically rootsy chord changes and bits of rootsy arrangements within an indie-pop or alt-rock aesthetics. This means marrying the unmarriable: the don't-give-a-damn, come-what-may attitude characteristic of roots-rock with the sharp rebellious desperation of the wanna-change-the-world (but smart-enough-to-understand-the-futility) indie approach. This means it's all interesting and shit, but uh what's the real deal? This guy may simply be too smart for his own good.
When Rolling Stone selected 'Is There A Ghost' as one of its top 100 songs of 2007, the reasoning behind the choice went «Southern rock goes shoegazing in this atmospheric jam», which I, for one, thought was almost uncharacteristically precise for the one magazine that all of us usually prefer to put down. But I feel vindicated on the second part of the description: «There are fewer than fifteen words in the lyrics, but packed into Ben Bridwell’s vocals is a whole doctoral thesis on what it means to be bummed out».
Bummed out? The words, repeated over and over until you start wondering if they really mean something, are: "I could sleep / When I lived alone / Is there a ghost in my house?" It is the easiest thing in the world to surmise it's all about depression, because most indie music is about depression, one way or another. But how do we know it's true? That the effect, with all the jangling folk guitars and the waves of echo around the vocals, is pretty and elegant, is undeniable; but is there actual sadness here, or misery, or any other sort of discontent? That one could write a doctoral thesis around the song is obvious (because one can easily launch into a miriad different issues from here), but would the subject of the thesis really be dedicated to the art of «bumming out»? I could just as well argue that the song is about the miracle of discovering the unexpected — and that its message is one of cautious optimism rather than bitter pessimism.
The album's other single, 'No One's Gonna Love You', must have been specially designed as a commercial antidote to the opaqueness of 'Is There A Ghost': not only does it have the catchiest vocal melody on the album, but it is also the least intriguing one — in fact, this is as close to generic «adult contemporary» as Bridwell ever got; just replace the ringing guitar line with a soft synth pattern and the man turns into Chris de Burgh. Even the lyrics are transparent: it's all over for the both of us, but we still love each other blah blah blah Wuthering Heights blah blah blah.
I would rather urge you to check out such tunes as the above-mentioned 'Detler Schempf' (beautiful, McCartney-worthy vocal phrasing on the "when eyes can't look at you any other way" chorus), 'The General Specific' (simple, uplifting, anthemic, truck-driving music for all those who hate driving trucks), and 'Islands On The Coast', which is exactly the way And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead (Aural Nerves) would sound if they only cut down on the crappy noise level and let their sense of melody show through — a cool, inspiring, catchy power pop song that also instructs you that "when islands want to coast, they'll know how", and perhaps some day you will, too, if you manage to convince yourself that Ben Bridwell knows more answers to life's questions than you do.
Personally, I don't: I think most of these lyrics are puffed-up nonsense. But I also think that the melodic gift of Ben Bridwell is undeniable, and that the songwriting on Cease To Begin is, in general, a huge improvement over the first album. Not only is this guy getting harder and harder to categorize and pigeonhole, but he also exercises better and better care over his hooks. Now all that is really missing is a little more diversity in the arrangements: the lack of talented instrumentalists or seriously inventive «flourishes» will make many people turn away from the record, declaring it «boring», and not even my thumbs up will make any of them give it a second chance. Which, I think, it deserves regardless of the competition.
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