BAND OF HORSES: INFINITE ARMS (2010)
For his third album, Bridwell decided a major structural change couldn't hurt, and proclaimed that, from now on, Band Of Horses would be a real, authentic band. Changing one horse in midstream (Rob Hampton is out) for a whopping three (former guest unit Tyler Ramsey is fixed in place, and multi-instrumentalists Ryan Monroe and Bill Reynolds also join the fold), Ben has stated his intention that that's the way it's gonna be, for some time at least. Friendship, partnership, democracy, free flow and exchange of ideas, the works.
The fact that seven out of twelve songs here are still exclusively credited to Bridwell, three more at least co-credit him, and the only non-Ben lead vocal is by Monroe on 'Older', somewhat belies that statement — in the end, the stability of this new 5-piece ensemble depends on the comparative weight of all these other guys' egos. But there is no denying, for me at least, that Infinite Arms is the best BoH record so far — it could easily remain as their unbeatable top masterpiece — and if it has anything to do with the merits of the new band members, then it's simply more fat food for the argument that the best pop music of our time is usually done in collaboration. Collectivism rules, as any respectable Bolshevik could tell you.
Third time's the charm, in more than one way: it took me three listens to be able to assert that, on his own third attempt, Bridwell nailed it. Jaded music lovers probably won't be floored, grounded, or pinned against the wall by the massive cathartic waves of the record, but there is really not a single bad or completely uninteresting track on it. It is utterly traditionalist in its approach to melody, texture, and emotion, yet still manages to scoop out a killer bunch of rootsy hooks to prove that even in 2010, you can still be traditionalist and get away with it.
The most frequent comparisons were to Neil Young, but the five-piece BoH is anything but a collective Neil Young-wannabe. Yes, the backbone of the music is still American folk and country, and Bridwell's vocal tone is lightly similar to Neil's (although far less whiny... and no Canadian accent, either), but it will take you, at most, the opening fifteen seconds of 'Factory' to understand that Infinite Arms is at least as much fed by the indie-pop scene as it is by «Americana». If anything, I'd rather say they were channelling the spirit of early Wilco here — this is all somewhat close to what Jeff Tweedy used to sound like, before A-R-T got the better of him and he could no longer appear before cowboy audiences with a straight face.
'Factory' is the album's «grandest» number, with a strings-and-brass «wall of sound» breaking its way through your living room. It is not at all complex, its major musical ideas are all over by the time the intro is replaced with the verse melody, yet it feels very genuine — uplifting in a 'Hey Jude' manner, despite the strangely depressed accompanying lyrics. For that reason, it may well claim its place among the «Biggest» compositions of 2010 (not that anybody really gives a damn, because the «bigger» well-written songs get these days, the fewer their audiences).
Much of the album is just mid-tempo rock, with hoarse guitars and generic tempos, but also with catchy choruses and passionate solos, e. g. the lead single 'Compliments', with its cryptic-apocalyptic message; or 'Laredo', sounding like a gallant medieval ballad re-written for bashing drums and feedback-drenched guitar; or 'NW Apt.', the album's fastest number, galloping along in post-punk mode. But I like them even more when they drop all signs of the RAWK attitude — this is where Bridwell's mastery of hooks becomes fully evident.
Thus, the vocal melody of 'Blue Beard' is sheer McCartney, always a nice thing to say, and you don't even get to snicker at the banality of the accompanying lyrics (because these, as usual, are inscrutable); and 'On My Way Back Home' gives Brian Wilson a gentle tap on the shoulder, since the way Ben sings the song title is an exact quotation of the line from 'Sloop John B'. (I wish I could take first credit for discovering that, but obviously I cannot — google the idea and you'll see the whole Internet has been buzzing about the resemblance ever since the album came out.)
From time to time, the band comes out with great melodic lines as well — the slide guitar bits on 'For Annabelle' (otherwise, a rather languid mellow ballad), that sharp tone and cool bends and all, are unforgettable. Excursions into «light» sunshine pop ('Dilly'), acoustic romance ('Evening Kitchen'), and even formulaic country-rock (Monroe's 'Older', redeemed by one of the album's most inviting sing-along choruses) all work as well.
In short, I just cannot find any grounds to complain — except, perhaps, a bit of surprise at 'Neighbor', the album's least idea-packed song, serving as its coda. It seeks to give the record as grand an exit as 'Factory' gave it an entry, but does not qualify, certainly not when they go from quiet to loud and all you have for the last three minutes are these silly crashing power chords, wave upon wave of them. A little anti-climactic after all the subtlety; which will certainly not prevent me from a raving variety of thumbs up as the final judgement. If Infinite Arms is to be taken as Bridwell's claim for taking the current lead in the «Roots Meets Arts» movement, I'd say he comes out as a fairly serious contender.
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