In 2007, if you were to ask your average long-haired, band-tee wearing indie kid (IE, me) who the top indie rock bands were, you’d hear the same names pop up. Death Cab For Cutie, The Decemberists, Wilco, The Shins, etc. You’d also most likely hear Band of Horses on more than a few lists. The band’s debut album, “Everything All The Time,” took the hip-scene by storm when it dropped in 2006. While some criticized it for sounding like nothing more than a My Morning Jacket rip-off, others praised the record for its infectious melodies, tight instrumentation, and distinct high-pitched vocals from singer Ben Bridwell. Most specifically, their song “The Funeral” became something of a hit for the band, appearing in various TV shows, movies, and YouTube skateboarding videos. By 2007, Band of Horses had arrived and were ready to appear on mixtapes across the country.
Today, I sit staring at my Worst Albums of 2012 list, stunned. Right at the bottom, just one slot under Yoko Ono, Thurston Moore, and Kim Gordon’s unlistenable noise clusterfuck, is Band of Horses’ “Mirage Rock.” It’s difficult to explain just how heart-wrenching the band’s 4th album is. Every track is amped up with over-the-top guitar twanging that sounds as if the band is parodying its influences. All of the qualities that made the group stand out were all but erased, leaving only a bare bones country rock blueprint shoddily translated into music.
The devolution didn’t come out of left field. The warning signs began in 2010 with their third album, the so-so “Infinite Arms.” Something about the disc felt subdued and significantly blander. Bridwell toned down his signature voice, settling for a lower, less expressive croon for the most part. But the album still has its moments. Tracks like “Laredo” still indicated that they could make solid rockers like “The Great Salt Lake.” And the title track found Bridwell utilizing his “old” singing style to create a hauntingly lonely song with sincere emotional staying power. Despite it’s flaws, it’s not a bad album. It’s not “Mirage Rock.”
Band of Horses’ downfall could be attributed to a number of factors, thought Bridwell’s vocal shift is the easiest to zero in on. His high notes on songs like “Is There A Ghost” showcase an astonishing level of control. It sounds as though he’s always close to overexerting his voice, like it could give out at any moment with a strained squeak. But it never does. He knows the extent of his range and just how far he can push it to bring each line in for a smooth landing. Often, that quality helped boost their songs that could otherwise fall flat. Take a track like “The General Specific,” for instance. Musically, it’s a somewhat goofy country track with hand claps and old-timey piano. But Bridwell’s unconventional voice takes the place of a generic southern croon, making the song a unique blend of traditional country and indie pop. Compare that to, say, Mirage Rock’s “How To Live,” in which Bridewell sounds like he’s doing an impression of a Texan bar singer. The charm quickly washes away nearly reducing the band to parody.
But that’s not the biggest issue here. It seems that Bridwell suffers from a case of Merceritis. What’s Merceritis, you ask? Recently, The Shins came back into the spotlight after 2007’s “Wincing The Nighty Away.” But the band itself was entirely new, with the exception of frontman James Mercer. In interviews, Mercer explained that The Shins were never a band, per say, but more his own personal project where he just rounded people up to play his songs. This was news to many. While Mercer’s distinct voice and songwriting was indeed a central draw of the band, the other musicians’ ability to hammer out incredibly tight pop-rock songs was just as important. As a result, The (new) Shins latest album, “Port of Morrow,” sounded like a James Mercer side-project, carrying little of the musical flair that made the group so enjoyable.
And Band of Horses have suffered the same way. The group’s current incarnation only contains one of the band’s original members, Mr. Bridwell. Sure, bands switch line-ups all the time. Modest Mouse go through a new drummer every week. But Band of Horses were never solely defined by Bridwell’s voice. There was a perfect dynamic between each member. “Our Swords,” for example, displays a beautiful interplay as each instrument bounces off the others. Snare drum weaves in and out of the bouncy bassline, while wonderfully restrained guitar subtly augments the choruses. Such flawless interaction is so rare, and it’s one that later line-ups could never hold a candle too. When you lose every member but one, is it really the same band any more? Why do these men use the moniker Band of Horses when there’s almost nothing linking them to the group?
The constant flux of members could work to the group’s advantage, however. It’s hard to say that Band of Horses really are a bad band because the band is always changing. Perhaps version 5.0 will contain a talented array of performers who just click, nailing the country rock sound that Bridwell is so fond of. Maybe they’ll get really into Black Keys-esque blues rock. Maybe they’ll pull in a gospel choir. It is impossible to tell at this point. At this point, anything would be a welcomed change from living in this Dumpster World.