Every now and then Horse Thief adds a little twist to their formula of solid, listenable, easygoing rock and the songs become noticeably better.
Trials and Truths, Horse Thief’s second album, is a solid set of easygoing, straightforward rock. Every song is good, a couple of them are better, and the band manages to come up with a handful of catchy riffs and choruses. So why didn’t the record move me more? Possibly it’s because many these songs are so straightforward that they end up feeling a bit bland.
“Another Youth” opens the album with a chiming keyboard note and vocals punctuated by multiple “Whoa-oh-oh-oh”’s. Eventually, Horse Thief cranks up the volume and the guitars just a bit for the chorus, but it’s that keyboard note and the “Whoa” that are the catchy bits of the song. It’s an odd choice to open the album, especially considering that track two, “Difference” is similar but much more striking. “Difference” is played at almost the same mid-tempo clip, but kicks off with a catchy descending guitar riff. The verses feature the guitars and bass playing a syncopated figure that noticeably sets them apart from the vocals and drums, and there’s a cool doubled guitar-keyboard duet near the end that slots in where the traditional guitar solo would go. These creative tweaks make a big difference when it comes to the song’s likability.
Third song “Drowsy” is a strong feature for vocalist Cameron Neal. Over an almost bluesy guitar riff and some subtle but welcome galloping drums, Neal gives a dynamic performance that plays up his southern drawl just enough to add character to his voice. He belts out the lyrics that seem to be about a friend overdosing: “I saw you shoot that bullet in your arm / I saw you cock that needle gun / I saw the trouble inside your eyes.” There seems to be genuine concern in his voice when he says, “Don’t you ever tell me that I did not know / Don’t you ever tell me that I let you go.” But then the chorus goes, “Your eyes are drowsy / So let ‘em close,” which seems the opposite reaction that one should have when concerned about a friend overdosing on heroin. It’s a confusing dichotomy between verse and chorus, but Neal’s performance makes it work despite the lyrical contradiction.
Whenever Horse Thief throws in these little twists, be it musical or lyrical, their songs are more interesting. “Falling For You” benefits from a slow tempo and a sparse arrangement. Cody Fowler’s menacingly buzzing bassline locks in with Zach Keller’s simple piano flourishes to give the song some real atmosphere, even more so than the open, reverb guitar parts. “Evil’s Rising’s" jauntily strummed guitars and catchy synth riff are brighter than most of the band’s material. It also has the cool technique of a super-melodic pre-chorus that doesn’t lead into the real (even catchier) chorus until its second iteration. It’s a well constructed song that ends up feeling like a very successful New Pornographers homage.
If you’ve been keeping track, that works out to four songs on Trials and Truths that go a bit further than “solid, listenable rock music.” Which leaves six songs that fit snugly into that “solid, listenable” description. The album ends decently with the folky, acoustic-driven “Million Dollars” and the wide open, echoing “Santa Fe”. But neither of these songs has those extra tweaks to make them absorbing. There is clearly some talent at work in Horse Thief. All five members of the band do cool things in various moments on the album. And they have the basics of their genre down pat. But their songwriting needs some work if they ever want to progress from playing in bars for the patrons to playing in clubs for audiences that came out just to see them.