When An Horse drop in a fleeting reference to Twin Peaks early into Walls, their second full-length album, it somehow makes perfect sense, despite the acres of formal and emotional distance between David Lynch’s surreal psychodramas and the Australian duo’s sturdy, tuneful guitar pop songs. Upon the band’s debut, first with a promising EP called Not Really Scared in 2008 and then with the equally solid long-player Rearrange Beds in 2009, they carried with them the slight novelty of evoking the straightforward virtues of ‘90s alternative-era guitar rock in an age awash in the expectation that its most creative guitar bands would incorporate bold, arty (and usually electronic) elements into their music. Name-checking Twin Peaks might register as a far less appropriate nod to the past than the earlier lyrical claim, “like that good Hole album, I can live through this” (from “Camp Out”, a track featured on both of their previous recordings), but it re-establishes a link to the band’s era-specific setting nonetheless.
In the time since Rearrange Beds made the rounds—which found the band opening for Death Cab For Cutie, scoring a soundtrack appearance in a Mercedes-Benz ad and singer Kate Cooper moving to Montreal from native Brisbane—the rest of the culture has caught up with them somewhat. The presence of alt-rock revivalists like Silversun Pickups and Cage the Elephant (both of whom An Horse have toured with) on Modern Rock radio and the recent acclaimed debut albums by Yuck and the Joy Formidable suggest that it is the ‘90s turn in the cultural cycle that spent the last decade fetishizing so many of the ‘80s musical poses. However unwittingly, An Horse have become part of a larger trend that mostly did not exist three years ago, landing them in the precarious position of now struggling to stand out amidst their little subsection of the already crowded field of guitar pop.
For Walls, though, the band has clearly opted to refine their sound rather than tinker with it. Understandably not yet in a place where their formula can stand much upheaval, the album is mostly more of what they gave us on Rearrange Beds: tightly crafted melodic rock delivered with emotional intensity and straightforward urgency. What continues to impress about the duo is just how full their arrangements come out sounding, often giving the impression of a band twice their size, despite having only Kate Cooper’s guitar and Damon Cox’s drums as their regular lineup. If the band rarely sounds busy or particular large in their sound, their ability to work up something like the furious, blurry wall of sound on “Leave Me” or the escalating drama of “Swallow the Sea” displays a remarkable resourcefulness.
Far more often, though, the duo is too hesitant to push themselves in such a way. For every captivating thing here, like the chiming, excited “Dressed Sharply”, there are far too many songs that are frozen at mid-tempo, leaving the album feeling too uniform to leave much of an impression, either in individual moments or as a whole. As a result, the occasional acoustic switch-up like the ominous “Windows in the City” or the steady, swaying title track end up coming off as barely distinguishable from the sameyness of tracks like “Not Mine” or “100 Wales”. If Cooper and Cox’s playing, even on these weaker tracks, continues to display top-notch musicianship, it is still doing little favor to the band at this still-early point in their career to already be remarking upon their competence.
Maybe even more problematic, though never a problem on earlier releases, is the limitations of Cooper’s vocals. Worryingly, or perhaps fortunately, these appear to be self-imposed, with the singer resorting to the same one or two vocal traits—dramatic halts followed by elongated syllables as a kind of tension and release—throughout the record. It makes for an experience where everything is given equal dramatic weight, only to result in none of it with very much at all (“Brains on the Table”, a stark yet heartfelt rumination on Kate’s mother’s illness, is the album’s rare exception). Best of all, then, are the moments where the addition of Cox’s vocals add genuine color to the small handful of songs he pops up on, whether it’s breaking through the backgrounds of “Know This, We’ve Noticed” and “Tiny Skeletons” or engaging in knotty vocal interplay on “Trains and Tracks”. Such subtle touches lend Walls a much-needed variety, something that the band will hopefully see fit to indulge more in the next time out.