by Jon Chapple
Every time I go to listen to Band of Horses’ third and latest long-player in iTunes, I type ‘B-A-N’ (and possibly a ‘D’ if I’m feeling adventurous) and am always instantly rewarded not with Infinite Arms, but Music from Big Pink. “Isn’t that apt?”, I think. “The daddies of country rock and and their young heirs, side by side. Two generations of rootsy Americana, neatly rubbing shoulders in the sterile confines of the ‘Column Browser.’” And each time I smile a knowing little smile to myself.
But the problem is that Infinite Arms is hardly any more of a country or roots rock album than it is a jazz record, and I’m struggling to think about how this got into my head in the first place. It could be the fact that most live performances I’ve seen of the group tends to see them kitted out in some kind of curious cowboy-lumberjack hybrid attire (think flannel shirts with stetsons) could have something to do with it. The name, also, surely plays a part in it: ‘Band of Horses’; they’ve got to live on a ranch, right?. But no, despite my initial first impressions, Infinite Arms is none of the above; it’s a polished, restrained and relatively straight-forward pop-rock album, albeit one with the occasional ‘roots’ flourish or effect.
However, as much as I admittedly do have a soft spot for The Band, that’s by no means a criticism. The record kicks off with two of the strongest openers I’ve heard on a new album in a good few years; “Factory” floats along prettily on waves of ethereal strings, its closely-harmonized dual lead vocals and slow-building orchestral pomp swelling beneath them working to create a serene, lullaby-like atmosphere, whilst “Compliments”, a yearning, irresistibly catchy mid-tempo pop-rocker straight out of 1972, provides a welcome change of pace which compliments its predecessor perfectly.
The rest of Infinite Arms fails to live up to the potential of its incredible starting momentum, but song-wise, there are still a few other highlights. The unremarkable “Laredo”, another rocker in the vein of “Compliments” (but with far less melodic appeal) certainly isn’t one, but “Dilly”, with its sing-a-long chorus and some impressive interweaving vocal acrobatics from vocalists Ben Bridwell and Tyler Ramsey is pure pop gold. “Older” is a country-styled ballad (I know, but it’s the only one!) overlaid with some attractive, tasteful pedal steel guitar lines, whilst “Blue Beard”, a sparse, evocative number about love lost under a “grey and cold” Midwestern sky sees the group trying their hand at ornate, Brian Wilson-patented multi-part harmonies, which works relatively well but is spoiled by its sterile production, which is irritating and can make the voices involved sound unnatural and digital.
Unfortunately, that is a key problem with the album as a whole. Whilst, as already mentioned, it would be a stretch to call Infinite Arms an Americana release, lyrically it is a completely different story, and I would prefer if the production reflected this. “Blue Beard” isn’t the only song where far-flung American geography features prominently; “NW Apt.”, a middling, power-chord driven indie rocker without anything resembling a hook to speak of takes place in Oakridge, Oregon (“I’m driving over in Oakridge, baby, with the whole neighborhood in tow”), the six-and-a-half-minute closing epic “Neighbor”, which combines an achingly gorgeous melody with a lengthy build-up and cymbal-crashing climax that Explosions in the Sky would be proud of, makes frequent use of rural North American imagery (chipmunks, border towns and lights on porches) and the previously-mentioned “Compliments” contains the lines: “Deep in the heart of the country was a house I built from logs / a raven and a lady hawk” and “Quiet and calm through the day, see the sun burn through the fog / approaching was a yellow dog.” John Fogerty would be proud, I’m sure you’ll agree. And yet there’s no warmth or natural air to the recording to compliment such rustic sentiments; instead, for the most part, the album sounds shiny, brittle and thin. A deliberate artistic decision or simply pandering to the iPod generation? I’ll let you decide.
Out of the twelve tracks on offer here, only the aforementioned “rockers” (“Compliments”, “Laredo”, “NW Apt.”, and possibly “Neighbor” and “Dilly” if we feel like being liberal with the term) really provide any diversity to the album’s overall sound, mood or tempo (slow). I’ll draw the line at labeling the record as a concept album for fear of tarring the poor boys with a brush they may not appreciate, but I don’t think it is any coincidence that “Compliments” and “Laredo” were selected to be the first two singles drawn from the album, and – if I were a betting man (which I’m not) – I’d wager that the next will similarly be a component of my expertly-picked Rocker List™ featured above, simply because the more upbeat numbers feel a bit out of place in the sea of deliberate, precious mood pieces that bookend them. Think three (or five) “Sloop John B”s and you kind of get the picture.
Incidentally, I think Pet Sounds might be a good analogy here. Like that most hallowed and revered of musical creations, Infinite Arms is clearly designed to work as a whole; it is a neat little musical package that should to be listened to and digested in one fell swoop. But unfortunately, whereas Mad Mr. Wilson’s symphonic masterpiece is certainly comprised of a collection of similar-sounding tracks, it still has enough diversity, energy and – most importantly – melodies to keep to the listener hooked, something Band of Horses just achieved here. I wouldn’t say it’s a chore to persevere to the end, but it’s just not interesting enough on Infinite Arms to make the effort.
And that is the real killer blow to any lasting appeal Infinite Arms may possess. With a few obvious exceptions (notably, of course, the two killer openers) the album just fails to make much of a lasting impact, with around half of its songs meandering around with little confidence, seemingly filling the time for the sake of it. I can see what they were trying to do; there’s an almost Sigur Rós-y pseudo-‘epic’ vibe apparent on most tracks, but here it feels more like a necessity because of a lack of memorable material, and the concept of marrying said atmosphere with lyrics lifted straight from the golden age of roots rock is – dare I say it – an almost pioneering one, but it just doesn’t work. There’s also a distinct lack of hummable melodies or obvious hooks present, with the band seemingly more concerned with creating a ‘mood’ first and a decent song second. I haven’t found myself humming these songs when I’m walking to the shops or involuntarily hearing them in my head before I go to sleep at night, and on an album of four-minute pop songs, that’s simply unforgivable.
It’s a real shame and a wasted opportunity, because the non-filler material (“Factory”, “Compliments”, “Blue Beard”, “Dilly”, “Older”, “Neighbor”) is music really worth getting excited over, but the album just has too much sub-par material for me to be able to truly recommend it as a whole. But get a hold of the tracks listed above, and you’ve got easily the best EP of 2010 so far.
RIYL: My Morning Jacket, Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, Rogue Wave, Death Cab for Cutie, Frightened Rabbit, Arcade Fire, Midlake, Manchester Orchestra, Bright Eyes, M. Ward, Blitzen Trapper, The Band, Okkervil River, Built to Spill, Iron & Wine, Minus the Bear, Wilco