[10 November 2009]
For whatever reason, when playing the promo CD for the debut release by Bell Horses, This Loves Last Time, iTunes recognizes the album’s genre as “Easy Listening”. While Bell Horses probably won’t find their debut release keeping close company in the CD racks with the likes of Lawrence Welk or Zamfir, This Loves Last Time is, for better or worse, an easy listen. Consider Bell Horses’ brand of downtempo, electronic pop like a bottle of NyQuil: good for evenings at home when trying to get to bed but not when operating a vehicle.
It’s hard to pinpoint who is to blame for this kind of music. Radiohead’s dense mixture of rock with loose IDM-influenced electronica exhibited on Kid Aand Amnesiac is a place to start. However, those albums maintained an eerie and emotional agitation by exploring the tension between the two varying styles instead of attempting to blend them smoothly together. The fallout of these seminal releases was the thousands of electro-rock carbon copies that have since formed and flooded music with what has mostly been nice but forgettable pedestrian attempts. Bell Horses isn’t much different. To be fair though, comparing bands to Radiohead is a bit unreasonable. Most of This Loves Last Time is less an arena-ready mountain of sound and more closely stuck somewhere between Dntel and the hushed bedroom pop of early Polyvinyl act American Football. Nevertheless, the intricate blend of organic instrumentation with minimalist electronica featured on This Loves Last Time find its roots in the very recognizable and quickly tiring sound of electro-inclined rock and mostly fails to do anything spectacular, let alone noteworthy with it.
To the credit of the well-seasoned musicians that make up Bell Horses – Xian Hawkins of Sybarite and singer/songwriter Jenny Owen Youngs—their debut is full of precise musical assembling that makes This Loves Last Time not an entirely fruitless listen. “Small Hours” is a moody piece that builds off low-end guitar noodling over spacious layers of reverb and strings. As the wounded vocals of guest-singer Alexander Ericson appear amidst the landscape of sound, the song transforms into a sad post-ballad of electric buzzes and scrapes that pull from all the right elements to blend perfectly together. While “Small Hours” is an ever-so-small treat, it also exhibits what is wrong with Bell Horses—everything ALWAYS seems to blend perfectly together. For a wistful, melancholy affair, the entirety of the album comes across so smooth and efficient that it ends up feeling manufactured more than delicately crafted—which it certainly was. Tracks like “The Comb” or opening-track “Still Life” are densely-constructed mid-tempo compositions that fly by with so little turbulence they end up like a musical saltine cracker—bland and uninteresting but politely adequate for what it is. Founding member Jenny Owen Youngs does little to help the cause and Bell Horses are best when she sticks to the instruments. Her low, almost monotone singing exhibiting the range of a freshman shot-put often blurs itself into the album’s astral plane of a disaffected emptiness seemingly caused by too many sleeping pills and weakens their already diluted sound. Somebody will not wake you when it’s over.
Much like water, This Loves Last Time goes down easy but ultimately leaves little impression. Fortunately for the listener, though, music like this isn’t a basic ingredient for life and can be easily passed on for something that strives for the bedroom stereo instead of remaining content in the elevator. If you haven’t figured it out yet, these crude metaphors are telling you that Bell Horses has none of the proverbial “umpf” and unless you got a bad case of insomnia and no health insurance, there is little here for you.