Intimacy is not an exact science. You don’t want to go too over-the-top with professions of love, or it turns out schmaltzy. If you’re too aggressive, you need to shut it down, take a long walk home, and have a cold shower. But if you can find that balance — those slight nuances that make the emotion genuine, and even down to earth — then, my friend, you win the day. Band of Horses’ new record, Mirage Rock, captures that genuine feeling as they bounce back from the over-produced Infinite Arms.
Producer Glyn Johns (Eric Clapton, Ryan Adams) had the right idea. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what that idea was that triggered Band of Horses to find its way back to success, but here are a few possibilities of what the legendary producer may have suggested:
A) “Dial back on that production a bit.”
B) “Incorporate a live-band-in-studio-playing-together feel.”
C) “Let me, Glyn f’n Johns, produce your record.”
That last guess is least likely to have popped up in initial conversations, but it was wise that Ben Bridwell and his Horses did. Mirage Rock manages to stay drunk around the edges when it needs to but sobers up when the songs call for it. It smokes its cigarillos during the jubilant “Electric Music” but sips coffee during the gorgeous, acoustic-driven “Slow Cruel Hands of Time”. It accelerates during the bleeding handclaps of “Knock Knock” and parks for a short nap on a long trip for “Everything’s Gonna Be Undone”. In short, Mirage Rock is another day in a normal life, and normalcy doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
One common thread throughout Band of Horses’ first three releases is the harmonic dominance over every song. The vocals on Mirage Rock add another chapter in their brief history, whether it’s Bridwell harmonizing on top of his own work or joining with keyboardist Ryan Monroe and guitarist Tyler Ramsey. These moments add unity to several songs, namely the chorus in “Slow Cruel Hands of Time”. It’s a track destined to confuse the casual listener into believing they’re listening to Fleet Foxes. That’s not a knock; both bands happen to feature fantastic harmonies and even better beards.
Harmonies continue, yet roles reverse on “Everything’s Gonna Be Undone”, a straight-up country ballad with Bridwell providing the harmonies to Ramsey’s lead vocals. It’s a rare moment for another band member to step out in front, proving Band of Horses is much more than a rotating backing band for Bridwell. Mirage Rock also marks the first time the same lineup has appeared on back-to-back efforts, which speaks to the easy give-and-take heard on the record. No single instrument dominates; there are no instances of turning down the bassist or any of that. It’s a total group effort.
Bridwell’s lyrics don’t find one mood and simmer in it. The first single is “Knock Knock”, with its anthemic chorus Ã la Cease to Begin’s “Is There a Ghost”. Bridwell’s chorus of “Knocking on the doorway/ Look who’s coming your way/ Everything I want/ Everything I need” is just plain uplifting in a cynical world. However, the Heartbreakers-esque guitar jangle of “How to Live” is deceptively darker: “Guess what/ I lost my job/ It’s just my luck”, “And I really didn’t need to suffer/ Still did it anyway.” These are hopeful sentiments mixed with frustrated reality, creating an atmosphere that’s easy for most listeners to relate to — neither a mope nor hope fest.
“Dumpster World” features a jarring change of pace within the song, between its “Horse With No Name”-like opening and coda. Its midsection gets thrash-y, but the track doesn’t work at either pace. Album closer “Heartbreak on the 101″ could’ve thrived on the eerie effect of Bridwell’s smoky, near-spoken word delivery, but Johns, in his only failure, allows strings to over-saturate the track. As for “A Little Biblical”, it’s a little light.
Mirage Rock isn’t a perfect record, but it’s one to own. By adding Glyn Johns behind the boards, Band of Horses allowed a master to do his work. They trusted him, and he showed them a new direction down a track of empty and quiet spaces in addition to rum-soaked treks through dark Saturday nights. The southern rock grip that is “Electric Music” sums up the record better than I can: “This is what it does/ Traveling the open road.”
Essential Tracks: “How to Live”, “Slow Cruel Hands of Time”, and “Electric Music”