Infinite Arms (2010, Fat Possum/ Columbia Records)
Band of Horses‘ 2006 debut Everything All The Time was a minor revelation. Propulsive, luminescent songs that managed to be at once intimate and thrillingly grandiose. Standouts like ‘The Funeral’ and ‘The Great Salt Lake’ built from minimal guitar underpinning Ben Bridwell’s tender, reverb-soaked vocals to incendiary, chambered instrumentals.
It proved to be a timely release: American indie was riding high as a new generation of soundtrack execs scoured blogs looking to add emotional weight to teen dramas like The OC. Band of Horses pastoral classic rock was the perfect fit. And yet, the group weren’t a breakthrough success like their peers Death Cab For Cutie and The Shins. 2007’s Cease To Begin didn’t veer far from the route plotted by their debut, despite a shift in lineup. It felt like a great companion piece to that record but not one that would prick the ears of those who weren’t already listening.
Three years on and it’s clear Bridwell is eager to position his band amongst those rare acts that maintain the loyalty of early fans while shifting thousands of units through Wal-Mart and Starbucks. For Infinite Arms, they’ve struck a hybrid record deal with both indie stalwarts Fat Possum and major dinosaurs Columbia to achieve the best of both worlds. We’ve also seen all the contrivances of an ‘event’ record; attempts to create online buzz, timely soundtrack spots and of course, the over-priced boxed set. Coupled with talk from Bridwell of this being the first real Band of Horses record with a permanent line-up rather than just a vehicle for his songwriting, you would expect this to represent a major shift in their sound.
And yet, Infinite Arms isn’t radically different from its predecessors. ‘Factory’ is a lovely slow-burning opener that picks up where Cease To Begin left off – all woozy processed strings and lilting vocals. The guitars chime a little brighter on lead singles ‘Laredo’ and ‘Compliments’ and the sound is tighter, one made more for highways and epic vistas than winding woodland roads and dilapidated barns. Perfect for radio, then. Problem is, by turning up the brightness they’ve somewhat bleached out the darker corners and subtle moments that came through with repeated listens, making them much more than My Morning Jacket-lite. The songs on Side 2 occasionally lack atmosphere and feel slight, particularly those led by Bridwell’s new bandmates – the by-numbers college pop of ‘Dilly’ and barely there acoustic mumble ‘Evening Kitchen’.
Infinite Arms is by no means a bad record – it’s eminently listenable, but feels like a homogenous, diet version of their past material, lacking the elusive spark that ignited their older songs. Maybe these songs will catch fire when they play Wolverhampton’s Wulfrun Hall tomorrow night.
MP3: ‘Factory‘ (sign-up required)