Review Summary: Nothing new to see here except a band making the most confident, assured work of their career.
It’s a bit weird looking at Band of Horses as a mainstay in the Americana genre nowadays when their acclaimed debut, Everything All The Time
, came out a mere four years ago. But that’s what they’ve become, for better or worse – in the eyes of this reviewer, the latter, as I’ve never really been partial to anything the South Carolina-via-Seattle collective has put out. Perhaps that makes it a little odd, then, that Infinite Arms
has resonated the strongest with me of all their efforts. I’m not sure what to blame this on, as Infinite Arms
still sounds pretty much like both their previous albums. Frontman and main force Ben Bridwell still sounds like a slightly less expressive Jim James, the band still pumps out mellow, inoffensive rock ‘n roll with a country bent, and everything vaguely reeks of honeysuckle and crisp Northwestern air. Maybe I’m just getting old, but that’s just exactly what I like about it – how everything seems reinforced, like Bridwell has finally mastered pairing his songwriting gifts with the studio to create something that sounds perfectly in place, perfectly uniform, and perfectly together
, like everything the band has aspired to previously but never quite reached.
It’s a sense of familiar comfort more than anything, but when I never really thought of Everything All The Time
or Cease To Begin
as anything great, it’s the subtle craftsmanship of the songs here that end up making Infinite Arms
such a success. Opener “Factory” encapsulates this feeling better than anything else, swelling strings framing one of Bridwell’s most stately, heartbreaking melodies yet. Everything is just so damn epic, like something that would have fit well on the soundtrack to Cold Mountain
or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
. Bridwell sounds more confident than he ever has, be it on the rollicking single “Compliments,” the starstruck haze of the title track, or the fearlessly country “For Annabelle.” Whether it’s Bridwell’s newfound fatherhood or just that he’s comfortable with where he wants Band of Horses to go (deep, deep into the American countryside), Infinite Arms
never struggles to find its identity, never wanders about unsure of where to go. The harmonies are stronger, more layered; the music is more fleshed-out, creating a mellow, intimate atmosphere that is far better suited to driving along a backwoods road than listening in a dreary apartment; everything, indeed, is more sonically at rest, flowing rather than forced. Indeed, Bridwell is the real firebrand here, laying down his most versatile performance yet, but it’s a performance that never flies off the rails or lapses into lazy platitudes.
The same can’t be said for all the songs here, which maintain that same sense of loving attention to detail but occasionally meander about into mid tempo folk sludge. After the awesome throwback to ‘70s FM rock, “Dilly,” there’s an unfortunate sequence of tunes that tend to try too hard (“Older”) or simply bore (“Evening Kitchen”). Things pick up before the end with the raucous (by Band of Horses standards) “NW Apt.,” but the heart of the record lies in the first half, where the songs paint a picture more of feeling than of any particular image. It’s a feeling of familiarity, to be sure; Band of Horses is never going to be accused of being wild innovators like My Morning Jacket were with Evil Urges
or entrenched, dyed-in-the-wool revivalists like Fleet Foxes. But is it so bad to master one’s craft, to whittle away on a song until it represents just what you want, what you’ve been aiming for your entire career? They’ll never be one of the greats, but Band of Horses have proved that they’ve near mastered the art of making quality, old-fashioned rock ‘n roll.