Band of Horses have found themselves in a bit of a strange place. As their commercial success has increased their critical success has declined. Sub Pop releases Everything All of the Time and Cease to Begin contained some of the most beloved indie-folk songs of the 2000s, from “The Funeral” to “No One’s Gonna Love You”. Infinite Arms got a Grammy nod and Mirage Rock gave them a surprise hit in Europe but both albums left a good chunk of old fans feeling out in the cold. So what’s a band to do? Why, release a stripped down live album showcasing songs from every Band of Horses album.
It’s not the craziest idea as Band of Horses was never a folk band content to stick to three chords and a simple string section. Listening to “Islands on the Coast” or “Is There a Ghost” proves that they were always excellent at meticulously crafting their songs. In the stark setting of Acoustic at the Ryman segments of music are pushed forward that were hard to detect in their studio forms. It also doesn’t hurt that Ryan Monroe is a deeply underrated piano player. The long underappreciated keyboard player gets some of Acoustic’s best moments with “The Funeral” and a few other songs here relying heavily on his piano work. The dusty roll of “Factory” is probably his best moment, making the Infinite Arms track into a lovely old-west ballad.
The real star here is Ben Bridwell’s voice. He’s always had one of the most recognizable and touching voices even next to peers like Robin Pecknold and Jim James and the more intimate setting makes his strange voice even more mesmerizing. His musings over “evil people” on “Wicked Gil” and his turn as a back-up singer on “Everything’s Gonna Be Undone” are reminders that he has one of the best voices in modern folk. There’s only one song here that Bridwell doesn’t quite give the performance it needs and it’s unfortunately “The Funeral”. His voice is still beautiful but he, and the rest of the band, can’t, give the power “The Funeral” deserves in this acoustic setting.
Thankfully that’s the only major gripe here. Band of Horses’ other major hit “No One’s Gonna Love You” is given the solo acoustic treatment with Bridwell singing and strumming without the help of the rest of the band. It’s not necessarily better than the original but it’s still a lovely version of the Cease to Begin hit. On Acoustic, Band of Horses also show off some immaculate harmonies that weren’t quite as clear on the studio work. “Marry Song”, “Slow Cruel Hands of Time”, and “Neighbor” prove that the Seattle-based band has some Southern soul. The high vocal lines that accompany Bridewell on “Slow Cruel Hands of Time” give a particularly sorrowful twang to the already somber song and it stands with “Wicked Gil” as one of the album’s more moving pieces. It’s also fantastic to hear the criminally underappreciated “Detlef Schrempf” become Acoustic’s centerpiece. The tranquil track from Cease to Begin trades light guitars for Monroe’s effortless piano playing here and becomes the album’s most powerful track.
Acoustic at the Ryman isn’t a necessary album by any means but it is reassuring. The musicianship and obvious care that Band of Horses put into this record is a great reminder that they’re far from done and excellent albums might be waiting in the future.