When Band of Horses announced the March release of its latest CD, Infinite Arms, it instantly became one of the most anticipated releases of the spring for many indie rock and new-folk fans. What arrived, however, may have surprised many as the new disc saw the band expanding its reach and sound.
No longer solely an outlet for founding member Ben Bridwell, he opened up the creative process to include the entire band and in the process, expanded the band's distinctively organic sound as well. That's not to say that it's an unreasonable or huge departure, but it's definitely the sound of Bridwell and his companions experiencing a newfound freedom to explore just what Band of Horses is and can be.
Although the band initially entered the studio with producer Phil Elk, who the group had worked with previously, the band's muse led it to self-produce the new disc, taking it in a new direction. The newfound freedom that came from Bridwell financing the recording of the new disc out of his own pocket allowed the band to record at its own leisure and without preset expectations.
That leisure and freedom led the band to write and record in locations as diverse as Northern Minnesota, The Hollywood Hills, Mojave Desert, Muscle Shoals, AL, and the Blue Ridge Mountains in the band's home state of North Carolina. In total, the combined locales and leisurely pace colored Bridwell's already picturesque songwriting to make it downright cinematic.
The incorporation of Bridwell's band mates into the songwriting process not only showed a sign of his commitment to Band of Horses as a true collaboration, but also happened to result in the most cohesive album to date. With a vision shared between members, the songs all tie together as a whole, building off of the foundations of BOH and creating something even more grand and rewarding.
There are still hints of the stark reflectiveness of earlier Band of Horses work in "Evening Kitchen" and "For Annabelle," drawing the band comparisons to peers like Bon Iver. Elsewhere, however, the group also incorporates the classic rock overtones of The Byrds and Beach Boys on tracks like "Blue Beard" and "On My Way Back Home." Before the disc ends, the Horses are at full gallop, rocking out in "NW Apartment." Through it all, however, the band manages to seem even more cohesive than ever, even though the disc itself may be the most eclectic and diverse of the band's library.
When discussing the record with bassist Bill Reynolds, I asked if the studio freedom contributed as greatly as expected to the creative process, seemingly fleshing out the band's ideas more fully than in the past.
"It's not that the songs really got fleshed out any more," Reynolds said. "It's just that we got to do whatever we wanted and try anything.
"We didn't have anyone telling us we couldn't do anything this time, so if we wanted to put a table or some weird instrumentation in, we could."
In turn, he also shared that it was in the final mixing process that the band had to be hard on itself, deciding what should stay and go.
The results, although more expansive than previous discs, still retain the panoramic qualities that Band of Horses has become known for. "Laredo" alone has already drawn the praise of fans and critics alike, combining a southwestern tone with bouncy tempo and just enough jangle to understand that Band of Horses is one of the few groups to truly bridge the gap between the classic rock of The Byrds and the indie uber-cool of cinematic indie darlings like Bon Iver.
Somewhere along that bridge, the group even teamed up with grunge icons of the DIY mindset, touring extensively with Pearl Jam and winning over a whole other group of fans along the way. That partnership and subsequent friendship with Pearl Jam even led to guitarist Stone Gossard's side project, Brad, opening the current leg of Band of Horses current tour with Besnard Lakes which stopped in at Cain's Ballroom on Tuesday, Oct. 12.
For those who were in attendance (the show sold out at the door, by the way), the band's performance proved that the buzz building about the group was well deserved. While the recordings are impressive and panoramic, the band's reputation has really been built upon the live show and the Tulsa performance only expanded upon the strengths that the CD hints at.
Black and white images and film clips consistently sprayed across the audience to display on the backdrop and Cain's stage shell, only adding to the group's already cinematic qualities.
What truly proved interesting, however, was the shift in live dynamics. Although the group was able to recreate the intimate moments that are a primary strength of the recordings (Bridwell and guitarist Tyler Ramsey even performed a dead on duet of "Evening Kitchen" in the encore), it was even more impressive when embracing its more energetic rock sensibilities.
While the harmonic jangle of The Byrds and even Crosby Stills and Nash were magnified along with vocal harmonies worthy of Beach Boys comparisons, the band displayed a distinct muscularity with its live chops and allowed itself to get just ragged enough to invoke images of Neil Young without devolving into strict garage rock. If anything, the show served to further support the band's role in tying modern indie rock to the classic rock acts of the late '60s.
Surely, the evening was one of the most impressive shows Tulsa will see in October, fully living up to the pre-concert buzz and only being overshadowed by the arrival of Black Keys only two nights prior.
Although it's easy to anticipate the group building upon this new direction ever further, Reynolds also shared that he could easily see the band doing a more stripped back record in the future as well.
Regardless of future direction, Infinite Arms has cemented the Band of Horses' reputation and expanded not only its sound, but its fan base as the new found studio freedom allowed it to create an album with a broad appeal. It's just that kind of cross-over appeal that has won the band critical praise and spurred GQ magazine to declare the group the most likely of its genre to follow My Morning Jacket in breaking out of indie rock circles and into the mainstream.
Whether that happens or not, doesn't really matter to the group's fans, however. So long as Bridwell and his compatriots continue to develop in unison as smoothly as they have with the latest disc, the horizon promises a bright future for the band and fans alike.
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