To a child, hearing the name Band of Horses will conjure up amusing images of a horse sitting on a drum kit rather comically, possibly with sticks attached to its hooves, hitting the hi-hat faster than Jimmy Chamberlain, while another one is standing on its hind legs, somehow able to strum a guitar and sing some horse-y song the whole time. To a Sub Pop label exec, listening to Band of Horses will conjure up images of the forgotten late-‘90s heyday of dream pop, a genre which has by-and-large died out commercially, leaving the market wide open and ready for a sudden and unexpected resurgence, the Horses galloping away with record sales and critical acclaim. To you, they will sound like Mercury Rev. That’s it.
Band of Horses is birthed from the minds of Ben Bridwell and Mat Brooke, formerly of horridly sad indie band Carissa’s Wierd. Though they went largely unheard of since their slightly pre-millennial birth, they at least had a wry sense of wit to their overly-tragic numbers, because nowhere on Band of Horses debut disc (Everything All the Time) will you hear a song titled “Sophisticated Fuck Princess Please Leave Me Alone”.
Here, the Band keeps its sound fundamentally the same, though tuning down the orchestrations and upping the “band” part just a bit, all while changing their outlook from pessi- to optimistic. Somewhere along the way, they crashed into the house of Mercury Rev and set up dream-pop shop. Every song off the Horses’ is delicately dipped in a smooth glaze of reverb and/or slight echo, creating the hazy effect of songs appearing out of the ether. The fastest they get is slightly above mid-tempo (the Wolf Parade-esque “Wicked Gil”), and the slowest they get… thankfully isn’t that slow (the pseudo-lullaby “I Go to the Barn Because I Like The”). This feels like the album that you’ll put on while driving in open highway at night or a lush forest during the day. It feels like the soundtrack for something but you’re never quite sure what that something is.
What proves to be frustrating is that this isn’t a bad album nor is it a bland one. It mainly lacks any real musical innovation, posting its dream-pop banners right up front with their largely generic opener “The First Song”, which seems to blatantly cop Soft Bulletin-era guitar sounds but does practically nothing with them. Not even a “yee-haw” at the top of “Weed Party” can save it from sounding like the blandest indie guitar-rock song you’ve heard all year. It’s certainly not because they’re a bad band—it’s simply the fact that the elements are in place but they aren’t lining up correctly.
Yet, when they click, boy do they click. The fantastic “Our Swords” opens with heavy reverb-bass guitar and soon echoes it out when the drums kick in, all while Bridwell barely-sings out lines like “Open your mouth / Sounds of breathing, foulness / Spilling from your face”. The groove is undeniable, the atmosphere beautiful. The same goes for the best of the three acoustic-based songs on the LP, closer “St. Augustine”. With a sweet classical guitar backing, you are soon swept up by the multi-tracked vocals, so much that you might not even pay attention to the surrealism of a verse that starts with “we’re dancing on the poison in their graves / At the end of the night we all’ve seen better days”. Even guitar-based romps like “Wicked Gil” and “The Great Salt Lake” boost up their middle-of-the-road choruses even more and give the album much-appreciated energy and adrenaline.
If you listen to the band’s demos, you can hear how this whole album could’ve turned out. “Our Swords” was originally (and appropriately) called “Bass Song”, and the tempo was slowed down to the point where you weren’t ogling the song - you were ogling the pretty reverb effects. Straightforward acoustic number “I Lost My Dingle on the Red Line” sounded like the single most boring Iron & Wine song ever penned. They resisted their natural tendency to play it slow, and they results were immediate. Still in their early stages, you can tell that the Horses have more to offer. Someday they’ll be at full gallop. Here, they’re just at a trot.