BAND OF HORSES: MIRAGE ROCK (2012)
1) Knock Knock; 2) How To Live; 3) Slow Cruel Hands Of Time; 4) A Little Biblical; 5) Shut-In Tourist; 6) Dumbster World; 7) Electric Music; 8) Everything's Gonna Be Undone; 9) Feud; 10) Long Vows; 11) Heartbreak On The 101; 12*) Mirage Rock; 13*) Irmo Bats; 14*) Reilly's Dream; 15*) Catalina; 16*) Bock.
Nothing lasts forever, and few things last shorter than the fruitful periods of modern rock bands. Two years earlier, Band Of Horses seemed to settle into a comfortable pattern of writing not particularly original, but quite seemingly beautiful music. With Mirage Rock, they almost seem bent on proving to us that they do not want to conform to patterns — and in order to do that, they are willing to sacrifice beauty, depth, and quality for the sake of change.
First things first: if you have a sound rooted in the roots, is it that necessary to choose a moment for placing production duties in the hands of the man who produced The Eagles? Glyn Johns does have an impressive, but a very uneven, pedigree: this is also the man, after all, who went on from producing Who's Next to producing It's Hard, meaning a total lack of guarantee. I have no idea if it is Johns' presence that determines the transition from the fairly sophisticated sound layers of Infinite Arms to the much more sparse and simple arrangements on Mirage Rock — I suppose that Bridwell must have wanted this shift in approach — but it is Johns' presence that orchestrates the whole deal, and the deal sure goes wrong.
Apparently, most of the album was recorded «live in the studio», with lots of rehearsals required before the final takes. Since none of the band members are really seasoned, notorious musicians, clearly more energy must have been spent on «getting it all to work» rather than on concentrating on the melody and texture side. Result? Mirage Rock sounds about as impressive and memorable as anything done by the kids in your local art college band (just enter your ZIP code to get the name) — maybe worth relaxing to while having a beer or two after a hard day's work on a cold winter evening, then moving on forever.
Nothing illustrates this point better than ʽKnock Knockʼ, the lead-in track and the first single released from the album. If there is only one classic example allowed of «impotence in music», this here is a great fine candidate — the song opens up ringing, banging, and whoo-whooing in anthem mode, and then you spend four minutes looking for release without getting it. Verse number one... bridge... verse number two... bridge... where's the frickin' chorus? Wait, what do you mean that was the chorus? That was just the bridge, wasn't it? You mean I'm supposed to sing along to "knockin' on the door, knockin' on the door, knockin' on the door" as the highest climactic point of the anthem? Can you imagine — oh, I don't know — a ʽDead End Streetʼ that goes straight back to the verse melody after "we are strictly second class, and we can't understand"? And this song doesn't even have that sort of verse melody.
Most of the rest is equally disenchanting. All sorts of by-the-book midtempo pop / country-rock grooves that barely ever rise above the ground, and float out of memory as soon as they are over (quite often, even way before they are over). Everything is superficially melodic, soft, warm, never overproduced, never irritating, but there is nothing in the world that would compel me to go back to these songs after I have patiently endured the record four times from top to bottom, and never even once did it manage to hit a nerve that wasn't already worn down to insensitivity by way, way too many hits in the past. So to speak.
Poking half-blindly at the titles, ʽA Little Biblicalʼ is not even the tiniest bit biblical, but it is almost a good, upbeat, well-rounded power pop number — maybe The Alan Parsons Project could have emphasized its stronger sides and polished it to the state of one of their unforgettable ditties such as ʽSooner Or Laterʼ (particularly if they'd found a less ordinary vocalist than Bridwell). ʽDumbster Worldʼ stylishly toys with Neil Young-style folk-rock gloominess, but then crashes into Garbage Planet when the mid-section starts «rocking out» in generic alt-rock fashion. And that's about all there is, really. By the way, quiet country stuff like ʽLong Vowsʼ does sound like the early Eagles, and even though I am not a mortal enemy of the early Eagles, what use do I have for a 21st century imitation of the early Eagles?..
One thing that does indirectly confirm that Glyn Johns was indeed chiefly responsible for this failure is the bonus EP on the deluxe edition, called Sonic Ranch Sessions: this was apparently recorded by the band without Johns' participation, and the five tracks on the EP are much more remarkable than the album itself. For instance, ʽReilly's Dreamʼ is pinned to a hallucinatory oscillating guitar line, turning it into homely dream-pop; ʽCatalinaʼ is saved from immediate death by some amusing experiments with Beatlesque vocal modulations; and ʽBockʼ has a better melancholic mix of piano, organ, guitar, and vocals than any other track on the whole package. This is a highly subjective feeling — it's not like we're talking heaven-and-earth scales here anyway — but it did come from somewhere, so I'm noting it just in case. But bonus tracks are bonus tracks, and the album per se gets an assured thumbs down — if you can't do better than the Eagles, why not just turn into an Eagles tribute band? More honest that way.
Check "Mirage Rock" (MP3) on Amazon