Friday, June 11, 2010

FIRST DRAFT: BAND OF HORSES' INFINITE ARMS



A revised version of the following review appears in the June issue of
Uncut.


BAND OF HORSES

Infinite Arms

Fat Possum/Columbia

Five stars

Ben Bridwell’s promise is fulfilled, as the budding auteur and his handpicked band fashion a thrilling artistic breakthrough


After living with the lush melodies, breathtaking harmonies and taut instrumental performances that distinguish Infinite Arms, I no longer think of Band of Horses as another promising Amerindie band. From the very first notes of their primarily self-produced third album, it’s dramatically apparent that Ben Bridwell and company have upped the ante big time, creating a musical statement that manages to consistently hit and frequently surpass the peak moments on their previous recordings. Having relocated from Seattle to his native South Carolina, Bridwell has surrounded himself with four talented and like-minded players in drummer Creighton Barrett, keyboard player Ryan Monroe, lead guitarist Tyler Ramsey and bassist Bill Reynolds. The stabilization of BOH’s long-shifting lineup is one of the reasons the new album is so cohesive, so accomplished and so timeless.


On the stunning “Laredo,” the band deftly fuses the buoyancy of the Byrds “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” with the jutting-jawed physicality of Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s “Cinnamon Girl” around a twisting riff from Ramsey right out of Creedence’s “Up Around the Bend.” First single “Compliments” features the harmonies of Ramsey and Monroe over a “London Calling” strut, and their three-part blend with Bridwell recalls the Jayhawks of Hollywood Town Hall. These rich group harmonies make several memorable reappearances, turning up in close-miked intimacy on Ramsey’s candlelit ballad “Evening Kitchen” accompanied by just a single acoustic, and in full-throated splendor on the Morgan-penned, pedal-steel-adorned country-rocker “Older.” All of the above tracks were cut live off the floor, lending them a glorious immediacy. They co-exist with shimmering monuments of aural architecture, painstakingly assembled, their intricacies illuminated by Dave Sardy’s 3-D mix.


There’s an intriguing further development in Bridwell’s songwriting approach, as he interweaves the elliptical verbiage of his past records with concrete detail of an intensely visual nature, these observations of everyday life hinting at storylines whose specifics are left to the listener to piece together. First track “Factory” opens in a hotel lobby, leading to brief eye contact with a stranger in the elevator, a stop at the snack machine and other mundane details that take on an air of mystery through the musical context, conjuring up the sort of hyper-reality found in William Eggleston’s photographs. The pumping strings and horns riding atop the band’s massive slow-motion groove bring an overlay of grandeur to the implied narrative – the pomp-plus-push of the arrangement redolent of the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony,” while Bridwell’s layered vocals pause to inhale before delivering the astral lift of Bon Iver’s “Flume.” These musical and visual juxtapositions permeate the album, taking centerstage on “Northwest Apartment,” a nostalgic, atypically straightforward series of aural snapshots picturing various places where Bridwell crashed while living in Seattle and touring the region; they’re paired with pile-driving drums and bludgeoning guitars, ending with the hum of an amp hanging in the air like a receding memory.


One of the album’s defining aspects is its vivid sense of the American expanse, from the close quarters of city life to the wide-open spaces. With its Pet Sounds-like contrapuntal harmonies and reverb-drenched sonics, “On My Way Home” resonates with SoCal buoyancy even as it yearns for Dixie. It segues into the title track, a dreamscape that inhabits the woodsy Northwestern terrain of Fleet Foxes, with Bridwell’s stacked harmonies stretching heavenward through the orchestral bowers of a Memotron (a digitized version of the Mellotron). The tender “For Annabelle,” written in Minnesota just before the birth of Bridwell’s daughter, poetically suggests a sun-dappled spring day in the upper Midwest. The high, lonesome group harmonies that open the culminating, thematically unifying “Neighbor” are a dead ringer for the Eagles of “Peaceful, Easy Feeling,” but at the 3:30 mark the track erupts like Mt. St. Helen’s, ending the record on a note of flat-out majesty.


Infinite Arms feels like it has two halves, the first six songs serving to expand the panoramic sound and style Bridwell introduced on songs like “The Great Salt Lake” from BOH’s 2006 debut, Everything All the Time, the second half-dozen, led off by the aerodynamic power pop of Ramsey and Bridwell’s “Dilly,” is laden with wholly and co-written songs from the other players, reinforcing the sense that this is a fully interactive band. But its symmetry is just one of the reasons you’ll want to get this neoclassic landmark on vinyl. Another is that it begs to be flipped over and played again.


Q&A: Ben Bridwell

You’ve said that in many ways this is the first Band of Horses album. How so?

It’s the first time the lineup hasn’t been this revolving door. I feel like the band has really solidified itself for the first time. When I started the band and Matt [Brooke] was in it, I had some songwriting input from him. With this record it’s like a real band, no one’s goin’ anywhere and everyone’s contributing to the songwriting process. This is a band that I’m a part of now and not just leading, and this is our coming-out party to show people everybody in the band, not just my sad songs.


Your harmonies with Tyler and Ryan are really classic.
There are times when you can hear that maybe it’s not perfect, and because we were doing it live and didn’t really have anyone to judge us, I tended to feel like that was its strength and not try to make it perfect like we’ve done in the past. Like maybe those little frailties are actually the strength of the record, where it sounds like people are actually singing around a microphone.


What inspired the orchestrations of “Factory”?
I was listening to a lot of Nick Drake, for the first time really
got Nick Drake. I had to hear every song, watch every bit of footage. There are such dramatic string arrangements in those songs. But I’ve also been a huge fan of Spiritualized, and I did want to go for that kind of dramatic effect in “Bittersweet Symphony.” It was very intentional, most because I was thinkin’ this might be one that people in the U.K. could latch onto.


Your lyrics this time are loaded with everyday detail.

In the past my lyrics were more abstract. I didn’t mean to be more to the point in these songs; they just kinda came out that way. I guess the song was askin’ for it, and that’s what I had and could speak from those experiences, so I didn’t shy away from it. But I don’t write lyrics deliberately, ever – they just kinda come. And usually I’ll edit them to death so that people have absolutely no idea what I’m talkin’ about. Maybe I decided to unmask them a little bit more.


This feels very much like an old-fashioned two-sided record.

When I approved the vinyl master the other day, I got to hear it, finally, as a piece of music, and it flows so much better as two sides. There really are two phases of the record, and the second side really does showcase the rest of the band. You get Tyler’s songs and Ryan’s song in there – it’s almost like a hint of the future of what we might be able to accomplish.

7 comments:

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Dave said...

hi there,

just wanted to say that i've read a thousand reviews for infinite arms, and this was by far my favorite one. great job, and thanks for doing justice to a breathtaking album!

dave
odetoboh.net

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