It seems like Band of Horses have been around forever. I suppose in today's world of daily buzz bands and the next big thing being yesterday's news before they've released a proper LP, six years is a long time. To me though, 2006 still doesn't seem that long ago. It was then that the band released Everything All the Time, an album that Pitchfork et al loved, but the public hardly even noticed. Their rise has been steady. Second album, Cease to Begin, was just as well received by critics and the more country sound brought slight success in the States. It was with 2010's Grammy nominated Infinite Arms that the band perhaps made it. However you wish to interpret 'made it'.
For Mirage Rock head honcho Ben Bridwell has dispatched with longterm, and indie rock darling, producer Phil Ek and replaced him with the legendary Glyn Johns. Anybody who has heard Ryan Adams' Ashes & Fire, on which Johns took his impressive rock background and produced the ultimate country album for non-country fans, will be able to hear why. Bridwell have given solid hints throughout the back catalogue that his love of country influences the more traditional indie rock that comes out of his native corner of North West America. With a growing acceptance of country music as being more than Garth Brooks and the Dixie Chicks, he must have realised now was the right time to (cliche alert) don his spurs and brush off his stetson.
The album opens with the strongest track on the album and lead single, 'Knock Knock'. Catchy, complex and complete, it's a track that is radio friendly and instantly toe tapping. I might be reading a little too much into what are, essentially, quite basic lyrics, but "better things come to those who wait" and "knocking on the door […] everything I want, everything I need" could perhaps be taken that Bridwell knows this is the album that will take them to the next level. With 'How To Live' the country vibe gets put into full swing. The excellent 'Slow Cruel Hands' has him going back to a natural voice compared to the Southern twang on the previous track. This is still where the album excels. It's midway between the two genres that are fighting against one another throughout.
'A Little Biblical' is surely a future single. If not I have no doubt that you'll be hearing it an awful lot if you own a television. Along with 'Knock Knock' this is going to help Band of Horses garner royalties from adverts nor seen since The Black Key's El Camino last year and Moby's Play prior to that. In fact, that probably helps to explain the commercial appeal of this album. It features music that you're used to hearing, but done very well. What it lacks compared to previous efforts is the interesting lyrics. A prime example would be 'Shut-In Tourist'. Another catchy and very listenable track, but one that repeats line after line. It is more worried about the music than the lyrics. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily in my opinion. The exception is 'Dumpster World', positioned ideally to follow 'Shut-It Tourist'. As well as featuring a thumping chorus (hello again advertising execs), the song is an inditement of love in today's world, and people's differing opinions about what hitting rock bottom is. Ironically, this ticks the boxes of traditional themes for country songs, but is probably the least country sounding song on the album.
As this the case with Mirage Rock, the track that follows goes exactly against the previous. 'Electric Music' features guitars, lyrics about road trips and wouldn't sound out of place at a roadside bar that has line dancing each night. 'Everything's Gonna Be Undone' slows things down but follows a similar path, before 'Feud' sees the album take on a more pop sound. I like the dong, but it feels so out of place this late on the record. That thought is compounded by the way the album heads back to where we were on the preceding tracks with 'Long Vows'.
The closer, 'Heartbreak on the 101', is one that is like nothing else we've heard over the past 40 minutes. The name couldn't be more country if it was made via a country music song name generator, but the sound is, at times, very Dylan. It seems fitting though to end up on a track that confuses us. The album is confused as a whole. It can't seem to make its mind up about what it wants to be. That by no means diminishes the quality of the music throughout. It may not be their most coherent work, but, bizarrely given the uncertainly about that it wants to be, it is their most accessible. This will get them a lot of new fans, and I hope it won't alienate the old ones.