Band of Horses Cease to Begin

[Sub Pop; 2007]

Styles: southern rock, folk/country rock, indie pop
Others: Neil Young, My Morning Jacket, Built to Spill, Death Cab for Cutie

Ben Bridwell sings “We are the ever-living ghost of what once was” on Cease to Begin’s third track, “No One’s Gonna Love You.” Chances are he didn’t mean it, but it's an apt descriptor for Band of Horses as they come leaning into the first real curve of the buzz-band rat race with their second LP. Their first album, Everything All The Time, came to us quietly two winters ago, and with its comfortable, lived-in sound and a handful of persistent hooks, it slipped its unremarkable-at-first-listen songcraft into our collective musical consciousness. I spun the album over and over in the freezing-cold information booth where I worked at the time, first because it was new, but subsequently because the standout tracks (“Our Swords,” “Funeral,” “The Great Salt Lake”) slowly made me realize, hey, maybe these folky castratos aren’t so bland after all.

Band of Horses have sounded familiar since the get-go, Bridwell swooning and pounding out those big, clean electric chords with the occasional bright and shiny distortion like Doug Martsch or any of his Northwestern offspring, while tapping into the high-pitched lonesome traveler lineage of Neil Young. Cease to Begin sees Band of Horses moving sonically and geographically Southeast (unfortunate for Bridwell’s vocals, as his South Carolina drawl is getting cartoonish in these new digs), but it’s not a step forward so much as a lateral slide. Their sound is a tenacious ghost: pale and wispy compared to the flesh-and-blood vitality of their ancestors, but with no reason to stop hanging around as long as it’s in demand with solace-seeking listeners. Fans flock to the band precisely because they’re good at hitting you in a very cozy place; it’s easy to listen to both albums all the way through on repeat, just because there’s no compelling reason to turn them off.

But where Everything’s best songs got lodged in your brain somewhere between “that’s nice” and “now that’s kind of cool,” this set floats along on a flat pulse of pleasantness with such ease it’s hard to remember which track made you want to skip back: this is music to write term papers to. “Ode to LRC” is a nice retread of “Southern Man” until it lapses, like too many of these songs, into an undistinguished blue-mood waltz. “The General Specific” does okay with its bouncy Belle and Sebastian vibe, until a key change sends it into that mildewed dungeon of classic pop tics in not-so-classic hands, where Matt Pond PA’s limp-wristed rule is law. There are still some really nice moments, like the simple sliding riff closing “No One’s Gonna Love You” or the meditative “Detlef Schrempf” and “Window Blues,” but when the boys aren’t treading water, they’re still treading a fine line between memorable and anonymous.

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