More confident than its predecessor, Everything All the Time, Cease to Begin is an improvement in every way, and one of the best rock records of the year.
When Cease to Begin starts, and you hear the opening notes to "Is There a Ghost" -- all soft-picked, reverb-soaked guitar -- things appear to be pretty much the same with Band of Horses. It sounds like a direct carry-over from Everything All the Time, a slight permutation of the main riff from "The Funeral". They are treading old ground with their new album, or so it seems in the opening seconds.
Then Ben Bridwell's vocals come in and any thought of looking back to their first record goes out the window. "I could sleep... when I lived alone / Is there a ghost in my house?" he sings to open the record, and his echoing voice is a sound far more powerful than he was capable of before. As good as it was, Everything All the Time also sounded hesitant in a lot of spots, the sound of a band feeling out its sound. The production was solid but underwhelming, taking some muscle from the guitars, rendering Bridwell's vocals airy and fading.
But these are all problems of the past, apparently. Cease to Begin is an improvement in every way. Everything just sounds bigger. The guitars, the drums, the vocals... all come with a noise that shows the band's confidence. It's only a moment after Bridwell starts singing on "Is There a Ghost" that the rest of the band joins them, and they go for the rafters in the back of the stadium right off the bat. The guitars are all hard-strummed distortion, the drums quick and train-steady. The song takes some of the more anthemic moments from the first record and speeds them up, turns up the guitars to give it some teeth, and the results are really stunning.
Second track "Ode to LRC" shows off the same energy, the band going full-tilt for half of it, until they drop it down and go quiet for the first time on the record, revealing Cease to Begin's second surprise. When these guys aren't busting their amps on this record, they are being downright soulful. "In a town so small," Bridwell sings when "LRC" turns on the blue lights, "how could anybody not, wave as you drive by..." It's a particularly revealing moment where we get a whole lot about this album in just a few seconds of a song. One, we see that Bridwell has figured his voice out. It's much fuller here, with enough bass in it to keep his high-register tethered to the track, where as on the first record his vocals often sounded disconnected from the instrumentation. He's also drawing out the words as he sings here, getting the feel of them more than before when he often sang in stilted bleats that were effective, in their way, but pale in comparison to his newfound pipes.
"LRC" also reveals a melancholy loneliness that pervades much of the record. Where "Ghost" has him wishing to be alone, free of the memory of someone he's lost, "LRC" finds him wishing anyone in town would greet him, just to feel plugged into the grid, if for a moment. But, for all its sadness, and the loss you can feel floating around all of these songs, it is also an often unabashedly hopeful record. Cease to Begin is a far cry from Bridwell's old band Carissa's Weird. Here, they don't shy away from sadness at all, but rather than wallow in it, Band of Horses spend the record looking for tiny glints of light in the darkness. "The world is such a wonderful place," Bridwell, totally free of irony, sings to close "LRC", and he sounds totally convinced of that fact as the band comes in, larger than life, to back him up.
And, just as Cease to Begin is bigger than its predecessor, it can also be gentler and more textured. The beautiful, though strangely-titled "Detlef Schrempf" rests on threadbare guitar and faint drums as Bridwell sings "Eyes can't look at you any other way" with a quiet voice dripping with subtle emotion. "Marry Song" channels the Band as the Horses show off their best vocal harmonies over gut-deep organ and drums. "Window Blues" is the best damn last call country song you'll hear all year, and a perfect way to close a record.
And all those quiet moments are bolstered by the rockers around them. "Islands on the Coast" boasts the biggest riffs-per-minute ratio in the Band of Horses catalog, and the multi-guitar attack ups the ante on the second half of the record. "The General Specific" is a quick, jangle-pop punch and displays Bridwell at his most energetic as he wails "I'm gonna wash my bones in the Atlantic shore." Perhaps the best two songs here -- "No One's Gonna Love You" and "Cigarettes, Wedding Blues" -- split the difference between the soulful ballads and the guitar anthems. The former could be counted in the ballad corner if not for the echoed-out, Marr-inflected guitar that is as big as the speed riff from "Islands", while the latter takes all the noise of "Is There a Ghost" and drags it through the mud, making it the murkiest, and perhaps finest, moment on the record.
In under 35 minutes, Band of Horses gives the listener anything they could ask from a rock record. They deliver the big riffs, the beautiful moments, solid lyrics, and the strong vocals to deliver them. It seems impossible that, in a time where bands tend towards overstuffed records when they want to change their sound, it is no small feat that Band of Horses could improve on their already impressive chops and cover so much ground in so little time. But that is exactly what they do with Cease to Begin, an album that is deceptively risky in its textured composition and laid-bare emotions. And those subtle risks payoff in a big way, making for one of the great rock records of 2007.