Wednesday, May 19, 2010
Album Review: Band Of Horses-Infinite Arms
As you can see, I'm not a fan of major labels. The whole concept of putting music, something that, ideally, is personal and expressive, out as a commercial product is something that I don't fully approve of. At best, major labels exist as a way to project great music onto a much wider scale. At worst, they're capitalism rearing it's ugliest face. Thus, you often get albums that contain rants about the problem sharing a shelf with albums that are the problem.
Ian MacKaye was once quoted as saying "the record industry is an insidious affair. It's this terrible collision between art and commerce, and it will always be that way. It has to be, because the people who run labels, no matter how on-time they were in the beginning-no matter how much they love music-at some point, if you just turn a label into its own entity, its sole purpose is to profit." Of the many wise things Mr. MacKaye has said over time, this one rings particularly true for me. I've seen many bands over the years score deals with major record labels, looking for a big payday, only to dissolve due to lack of interest shown by the very label that signed them in the first place. Thus, when a band I truly love is put in this scenario, I'm cautious for various reasons, first and foremost because it could be the start of their demise just as easily as it could be their big break.
Enter Band Of Horses. This band's been around for a few years now, and have released two albums, both of which were among my favorite albums of the 2000's. Both albums are so straight forward, it's almost stupid. But it's not stupid. It's far from it. The only complain I would have is that there wasn't much in the way of evolution. Both albums sounded largely the same. Although the sound was good enough that this complaint was fairly minor, upon hearing news that they were working on another album, my hope was that they'd open up the palette a bit more this time around. Well, after having listened to Infinite Arms all the way through a few times, it seems that both my hopes and fears have each gotten equal attention.
Upon first listen, the uneasy feeling I often get when first listening to a new release from a band I love was palpable. When I first listen to new music, I want to love it, and grow familiar with it upon repeated listens. I want to be able to sing the choruses after just a couple of listens, not just because the music is catch (often despite the music not being catchy at all), but because I want it to become part of my subconsciousness. My first reaction after hearing it was one of "meh". "It's not bad, but it's not great." And the classic "it's got some good songs, but it's not a great record." The thing is, their first two albums perfectly captured that feeling you get when you walk outside and see your breath on the air. Infinite Arms sounds the same in a lot of ways, but somehow ends up sounding more like a "paint by numbers" version of their past work. In other words, it sounds almost like a Band Of Horses ripoff band.
Although singer Ben Bridwell has never been able to claim lyric writing as one of his strongest attributes, he's always been able to sing in such a way that a line like "the world's such a wonderful place" sounds heartfelt and poignant rather than terrible. He can claim many examples of the old "sounds ridiculous on paper, but sounds great when sung" trick. However, on Infinite Arms, lines like "I was thinking it over by the snack machine" sound awfully pop-country like. That line, along with the rest of opening track "Factory", creep along at a painfully slow pace. A huge string backing is added to this song, and adding strings to the huge sound the band has always projected was maybe a natural step. However, in this setting it just seems forced.
Lead single "Compliments" takes a bit of a darker sounding tack than anything else the band has approached before. It's a mid-tempo rocker, and is definitely kind of an awkward way for them to choose to portray themselves to the masses. That's not to say it's a bad song; it's just not even close to as good as most of what they've done before. "Blue Beard" starts out with an a'capella intro, a la The Beach Boys, then kicks into a verse that sounds more like Chicago than I feel comfortable with. The first song that sounds even close to par with their past work is fifth track "On My Way Back Home", when Bridwell finally lets loose vocally, and the music follows suit. Although it's essentially a simple ballad, it's got enough of the old majesty that you finally feel like you're listening to a Band Of Horses record.
The track listing then moves into a pattern of alternating slower, softer numbers with rockers. Although the softer numbers are fine on their own, they kind of blend together, with none really standing out. The rockers don't fare as well; they sound like mediocre Foo Fighters songs, with the exception of "Older" which is a lazy country stab. Although it's not bad, it's kind of "country-rock by numbers".
Unfortunately, that's how I'd describe Infinite Arms as a whole. Not bad by any means, but not even close to approaching the majestic highs reached on their last two albums. Especially vocally, I feel like Bridwell really cut back on letting loose this time around. Although it's always nice to see a band refusing to settle for the status quo, it's also unsettling to see a band change in ways that are less than ideal. I almost wonder if this was a half hearted attempt at grabbing the brass ring the major labels seem to dangle in front of bands. Although it's certainly not made with the intention of dramatically growing their audience, part of me thinks that there's no way the fact that it was released on a major played no role in how it sounds, both musically and sonically. The music is uneven and uncomfortably unfamiliar, and frankly, often boring. The production, provided by Phil Eck (who also helmed their first two albums), is fine, but knowing that the mixing was done by Dave Sardy (who was no doubt hand picked by the big boys at Columbia) makes me suspicious.
I guess maybe the thing that makes me frustrated is that it's impossible to explain what my major complaint with this album is. I can't point to any one thing and say "that's what's wrong with that album!". Even though I can't knowingly hear anything that makes me think this, Sardy's involvement, as well as the fact that the album was released by Columbia, makes me wonder if the problem truly is subconscious. The loudness war currently being waged by the majors is certainly ruining a lot of music, and I hate to think that they've even found a way to seep into the little corner of the universe I've been occupying happily for a while. However, the fact that I can't substantiate my problems with this album make me think that they've figured out how to ruin something that is truly dear to me. Let's just hope that this is an isolated incident, and we don't see Iron And Wine release their next album with a "muscled up rock sound".
On My Way Back Home