The third album and major label debut for Ben Bridwell's "Y'all-ternative" outfit is a head-scratcher.
Infinite Arms, Band of Horses’ third album, is both surprising and disappointing. It’s surprisingly dull, and that’s disappointing.
The band’s first two albums were hardly groundbreaking, but they were nothing if not innervating. The debut Everything All the Time (2006) was such a welcome, left-field success largely due to the fresh, sincere energy and striking dynamics Ben Bridwell and Mat Brooke brought to their shimmering indie-rock. You could practically feel the chill, invigorating mountain air and open space of the band’s Pacific Northwest home moving through the music. Add Bridwell’s unique, high-pitched vocals, and you had something special, not because it was innovative, but precisely because it incorporated established elements so effectively.
Brooke left soon after Everything All the Time’s release, leaving Bridwell to decamp to his native North Carolina for 2007 follow-up Cease to Begin. That much of the haunting, near-gothic majesty of the debut had been replaced by a more homey Americana became a moot point. The songs were so strong, and so inviting was their performance, that those who did notice didn’t much mind. When Bridwell exclaimed, irony-free, “The world’s such a wonderful place!” on “Ode to LRC”, how could you not just crank up the volume and join him? Dude, he was singing about a library! Sophomore slump successfully abated, Band of Horses were set to join the likes of Wilco and My Morning Jacket as long-running flag bearers of progressive American rock’n’roll.
All this makes the serviceable nature of Infinite Arms tough to figure. It’s Band of Horses’ first album for a major label, Columbia, after leaving Sub Pop. But “sellout” isn’t the first explanation that comes to mind. The band and Phil Ek handle production, as they did on the first two albums. And while the grandiose strings of slow-motion opener, “Factory”, will certainly sound good in those big open-air venues when Band of Horses support Pearl Jam this summer, there’s no palpable sense of radio-baiting. One factor that is different is Dave Sardy, who mixed the album. He’s worked with everyone from Oasis to Slayer, but he’s also the producer and mixer behind Jet, which puts him under immediate suspicion. And it’s true that the mix of Infinite Arms, while clean and completely clear, fills up every millimeter of sonic space. There isn’t much room for that fresh mountain air, in other words.
It’s also tempting to blame Infinite Arms for being too mellow, too full of ballads. But further review reveals that’s not the problem. “On My Way Back Home” is pretty and hypnotic, and features some of Bridwell’s best singing ever, and “Blue Beard” isn’t far behind. No, the problem is the handful of remaining ballads are nothing so much as a fleetingly pleasant, homogenous jumble. Slow songs aren’t bad in themselves, but boring slow songs are the worst. Anyway, Infinite Arms has its share of mid-to-fast tempos, too. Again, though, the songs are of inconsistent quality. “Compliments” is the most energetic thing here, yet it’s also one of the most clunky tunes the band have recorded, and it fades out almost arbitrarily. “Northwest Apartment” double-times its way to nowhere.
On a couple of occasions, the lackadaisical mood actually works to Band of Horses’ benefit. “Laredo” rolls along resignedly, kicking up a bit of Southern dirt as it does. A lovesick Bridwell laments, “Oh, my love / You don’t even call”, only to wonder, “Oh, my love / Is that you on the phone?” The beautiful harmonies, the extra sigh at the end of each chorus, and the interlocking guitars all work together to capture the post-breakup circle in poignant fashion. Musically, it’s like the mopey cousin to Everything All the Time’s “Weed Party”, and that’s fine. Elsewhere, the chugging piano and faux timpani of “Dilly” make for a disarmingly whimsical pop song. Sure, it apes Summerteeth-era Wilco, but isn’t that a great sound to mimic, anyway? And the track finds Bridwell almost gaining back his charisma. Almost. You can fire up the disco ball for “Older”, too, a winner that dusts off the ol’ lap steel and matches a ponderous, falsetto verse with a hooky singalong chorus. The song captures some of the widescreen wonder of Band of Horses’ past, though it’s written and sung not by Bridwell but by keyboard player Ryan Monroe.
Still, would you trade any of these tracks for your favorites from Everything All the Time and Cease to Begin? Not likely. It’s also not likely that Infinite Arms is a “grower”, because it puts everything it has right up on the table. Maybe the culprit is songwriting, then? Or an overabundance of weed in the studio? How about a combination of factors, a “perfect storm” that led to a chronically placid result? It’s unthinkable that Bridwell and his band were simply not trying. From here, the most likely scenario is Band of Horses felt they had to “mature”, to evolve. In rock ’n’ roll terms, that means mellow out and Get Serious. Bridwell has said that Infinite Arms, with all of the band’s touring line-up in the studio, feels like the first true Band of Horses album, further suggesting a desire to break with the past. That’s his prerogative. But who said the future couldn’t be a little more fun?