I’ll go ahead and say it: I’m a sucker for a good melody. For as much as I might try to project an abiding indie puritanism by tossing around semi-obscure names like Burning Star Core, I’m helpless and be-goosebumped before a sweet, lilting harmony. You know where I’m heading with this. At first, I brushed Band of Horses off as another Shins knockoff who had somehow infiltrated the edges of my everyday life with a cheaply constructed, heartstring-tugging sound; after Garden State, a grip of those fuckers came out of the woodwork looking to be the next band to change Natalie Portman’s life.
But Band of Horses were deceptively original. When I finally gave their 2006 debut Everything All The Time a fair listen, I was duly impressed. Although songs like “The Funeral” were ready-made for car commercials and movie endings, there was something about the band’s unapologetically wide scope and singer Ben Bridwell’s soaring, affected yelp that got to me. Put simply, dude’s sense of melody is on par with the best of them. Their follow-up, Cease to Begin, pulled me even further in. Although it seemed oddly sequenced and the production gratuitously expansive, the hooks were undeniable, and it remains a favorite of mine.
But I fear my relationship with Band of Horses has soured. It’s clear from the huge, reverberating drums and sweeping movie strings at the start of “Factory,” the first track on Infinite Arms, that this is their Big Statement. The group has expanded both their lineup — adding guitarist Tyler Ramsey and bassists Bill Reynolds — and their reach, as if to challenge the notion that their epic, cinematic sound couldn’t possibly get any bigger. Like Cease to Begin’s “Is There a Ghost?” “Factory” is an unfortunate album opener. Thankfully, it leads into the much better “Compliments,” a bouncy, mid-tempo rocker that boasts a damn catchy chorus. Ah! Here we go. Except, Bridwell’s lyrics are inane. “If there’s a god up in the air/ Someone looking over everyone/ At least you got something to fall back on,” he sings, like something out of Jakob Dylan’s diary. Okay, so the lyrics aren’t great, but I’m not giving up on you yet, BOH.
And good thing, too, because the next track, “Laredo,” shows the band traversing new, scaled-back territory to refreshing results. It’s another mid-tempo burner, but Bridwell’s vocals are finally free of the suffocating cloak of reverb that feels, at this point, like the band’s biggest crutch. Unapologetically front and center, Bridwell delivers apprehensive lines like, “Oh, I’m at a crossroads with myself/ I don’t got no one else.” The next track, “Blue Beard,” finds the band lethargically backing an effusive Bridwell, here channeling the love child of Brian Wilson, Ben Gibbard and Boyz II Men. Yeah, that’s one freaky-looking baby, but it kind of works. I’m back in!
But not for long, for then the band delves headfirst into serious “meh” territory. The remainder of the album is all but forgettable; it essentially blends into one long, dull MOR-fest, peppered with the occasional instructive melody courtesy Bridwell. For all I can tell, everyone else in the band went for a smoke break at this point. The instrumentation on the second half of Infinite Arms is totally unremarkable; it could have been performed by any number of faceless studio musicians. Sure, Bridwell has always been the band’s ace in the hole, but at least before the other guys made their presence known. Here, they are the Backing Band of Horses — on the shudder-inducing “Dilly,” which takes its cues from saccharine MTV pop-rock (look for it soon on The Hills), or the vaguely country “Older,” with its god-awful lyrics about, yep, getting older. “For Annabelle” is a palatable acoustic number, and the band picks it back up with the jumpy “NW Apt.,” but it’s not enough to redeem the album’s soggy-bread midsection.
Infinite Arms is a confusing, schizophrenic work. Several of its earlier tracks find the band clicking like never before and exploring fresh ideas while sounding more aerodynamic than ever. But so much else seems to have been haphazardly thrown together, as if the band never even entered the same room during the recording process. This mess might be rightfully attributed to the fact that the band split producing duties for the album with longtime partner Phil Ek. Although I’m not sure who engineered which songs, there are two distinct sounds at play here, and they are at odds with one another. But even that can’t account for the fact that many of these songs just aren’t very good. Above all, though, the band seems to have fallen victim to that most pervasive of musical ailments: the identity crisis. I can only hope that Band of Horses come out the other end of said crisis with a tighter focus on who they were in the first place.