Band Of Horses – Infinite Arms

January 01, 1970

(Columbia/Brown/Fat Possum)

 

www.columbiarecords.com

 

It’s good fun blaming major labels when indie bands sign up
and then lay a turd, especially given the majors’ storied “we don’t hear a
single” stupidity. But in the case of South Carolina-based Band of Horses and
its third full-length, Infinite Arms (Columbia/Brown/Fat Possum), you can
only point the finger at the band for what’s gone so terribly wrong.

 

First, some essential back-story. After Band of Horses’ 2006
debut Everything All the Time became
an out-of-left-field hit thanks largely to the epic-sounding and much-YouTubed single
“Funeral,” audiences for the band grew steadily before and after the release of
2007’s Cease to Begin. By the time the
band’s contract with Sub Pop expired, those ballooning crowds had been duly
noted by the remaining majors, and the courtship of Band of Horses and its built-in
fan-base began. 

 

But Ben Bridwell – who is the only remaining member from the
Everything days, and who was raised
on DIY indie rock and Sub Pop’s substantial
teat – insisted on complete creative control over Infinite Arms, even agreeing to finance the record himself to
achieve that freedom. He also asked that any label deal include the resurrection
of his Brown Records imprint, which Bridwell established to release Carissa’s
Wierd (sic) records even before he became a member of the Northwest cult
favorite which birthed Band of Horses. (Columbia Records was able to claim
signing honors, while the distribution deal went to Fat
Possum, hence the triple label designation affixed to the
record sleeve.

 

Now, with cash in hand from that burgeoning fan-base,
Bridwell and his bandmates – South Carolinians Ryan Monroe and Creighton
Barrett, and Asheville-based Tyler Ramsey and Bill Reynolds – put their money
to work. Recording began at Asheville’s Echo Mountain,
but the band decamped to Muscle Shoals and brought in strings and horns, and eventually
headed out to Hollywood
to, among other things, record vocals through the same reverb tanks that the
Beach Boys used for “Good Vibrations.” But Bridwell and friends soon discovered
that major label toys cost major label money, and recording for Infinite Arms halted while Band of
Horses mounted another round of well-attended tours to finish financing the
rest of the record two years after basic tracking began.

 

Unfortunately, best intentions don’t always pan out, and Infinite Arms is, sadly, merely the latest
step in a downward trajectory from the band’s debut. Creative control only
highlighted Bridwell’s songwriting weaknesses, judging by the many soporific
songs here. In fact, the most telling tidbit about the record is buried in the
press material. Producer Phil Ek (Built to Spill, The Shins), who was responsible
for the canyon-deep and mountain-high dynamics on the band’s prior records, left
the recording very early on due to “scheduling conflicts.” That’s often PR jargon
for artistic differences. Whether that was the case or not doesn’t even matter;
whatever the reason, that’s where the trouble with Infinite Arms manifests most noticeably. The band has often replaced
Ek’s trademark cavernous sound with the equivalent of a soft-rock throw pillow.
It’s meant to convey intimacy, but instead throws a spotlight on the (mostly)
dynamics-free songwriting and Bridwell’s sophomoric narratives.

 

The album is frontloaded, but still undermined by the same weaknesses
that soon sink it for good. Opener “Factory” signals the new direction and
bigger budget with syrupy strings, Wall of Sound drumbeats and a guitar line
that winds – and whines – through a lazy, pleasant-enough melody. The narrative
is meant to lament the loneliness of the road via snapshots of “temporary”
late-night hotel lobbies and even later-night TV movies, but dead-end details and
a juvenile comparison of a loved one to a snack machine candy bar are excruciating.
By the end of the track confusion reigns anyway, since Bridwell’s declaration
“I don’t ever want to come back home” cancels out what the rest of the song was
about. The rocker “Compliments” buries the guitars in warm fuzz, but at least
they’re back and fueling the album’s best chorus and middle-eight – still, the
less said about Bridwell’s lightweight meditations on the deity “looking over
everyone,” the better. Then there’s the simple love-is-gone “Laredo” which, with its chugging beat, twangy
riff and wistful melody, made it an obvious choice for the LP’s first single.

 

But whatever good will these opening cuts engender is
crushed by much of what follows. Tepid numbers like “Blue Beard,” “On My Way
Back Home,” and the title track are virtually free of elemental dynamics. All
three are lovelorn laments with bridges nearly indistinguishable from the rest
of the meandering melodies: no instrumental solos, no tempo shifts, no highs or
lows for contrast. The worst offender is “Evening Kitchen,” another trite
love-is-gone tale this time built on twin acoustic guitars and harmonies so
mawkish you wonder if all that late-night hotel TV viewing included too many Time
Life Classic Soft Rock infomercials. This is where the absence of Mat Brooke –
the delicate yin to Bridwell’s reverb yang on Everything – is most noticeable (contrast this schmaltz with “St. Augustine,” for
instance).

 

“Dilly” and “NW Appt” at least have pulses, though the
driving beat and staccato keyboards of the former lead only to a chorus of derivative
Brian Wilson harmonies, while the latter’s furious guitars seem only to remind
us how much more fun Everything‘s
“Weed Party” was. “Older,” on the other hand, blends its harmonies with twangy
guitars and comes up with a nice low-coast ditty that could serve as a bookend
with Cease to Begin‘s “The General
Specific.” But disc-closer “Neighbor,” clocking in at 6 minutes, spends half
its running time leading up to a crescendo remarkable mostly for its lack of
punch – compare it to the build-and-release of Everything‘s “Monsters,” and Ek’s “scheduling conflicts” become
even more unfortunate.

 

Bridwell will never be mistaken for Stephen Merritt or Joe
Pernice, but at least the music and textures of the two previous records kept
your mind off his clunky, if heartfelt, narratives. Here, however, he’s
insisted that he and the band know best, and the result is more than just a
major label misstep – it’s a major misstep,
period.

 

Standout
Tracks:
“Laredo,”
“Older” JOHN SCHACHT

 

 

 

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