The review got lost in the vacation period, but this is one of my favourite albums of the year so far.
Band of Horses – Why Are You OK
When the title of your new album quotes an e-mail sent by your 3-year old son, it’s a sure sign that a certain part of your life has changed, but what about the music? Well, Ben Bridwell’s life has certainly been transformed. The father of four built a house with a studio and wrote the songs for Why Are You OK at home during the night, taking his kids to school in the morning. The album reflects this 30-something lifestyle. ‘In A Drawer’ begins with a very comfortable scene. “Sitting on a bearskin rug, Listening to grandpa talk, The whistle of an old bird call, A photo of the long lost dog”. ‘Casual Party’ ups the domestic tranquility, “Kids and the dog, a freshly-mowed lawn, Retirement plans for a mountain home”. This sure ain’t no ‘Weed Party’. It could all be a little cloying, but it isn’t. Bridwell makes it clear that the casual party is not for him, “I’m gonna leave, Best get out of the way”. And there’s a recurring introspection that can be slightly unsettling at times. “The heart of a man, The secrets they bury within”, we’re told on ‘Barrel House’. And “Are you truly in love, absolutely in love?”, he asks of someone in ‘Hag’. “Did mentioning me make your skin start to crawl?” There may be a new-found domestic setting to this album, but we’re certainly not at home with The Waltons. That’s reassuring. The equivalent is true for the music. ‘Solemn Oath’ has the verve of songs such as ‘Laredo’, but with Jason Lytle on production duties there’s no unthinking quiet/loud formula here. In fact, there’s a welcome calmness to much of the collection, culminating in the lovely ‘Even Still’. Ben Bridwell’s life may well have changed and Band of Horses may have moved on, but Why Are You OK is still a statement of musical intent. A mature statement to be sure. And a very welcome one at that.
This is always a really exciting time. A whole year of new releases to be anticipated. We know there’s material forthcoming from Villagers, Eleanor Friedberger, Andrew Bird, Dylan Leblanc, Shearwater, Tindersticks, Lucinda Williams, Sun Kil Moon, and Damien Jurado. There are also rumours of albums from Band of Horses, My Morning Jacket, Robert Ellis, and PJ Harvey. That’s a good start. But there’s much more to hope for. Last year, I was really lucky. Right at the top of my 2015 list was music from Elvis Perkins and Sufjan Stevens and both were kind enough to oblige. So, artists, if you are listening, here’s my wish list for 2016 – Bill Callahan, Phosphorescent, Richmond Fontaine, Anais Mitchell, John Vanderslice, Bon Iver, Kathleen Edwards, Kate Bush, Grizzly Bear and/or Department of Eagles, David Vandervelde, Neko Case, Emmy The Great, Ryan Adams, Feist, Margot & The Nuclear So and So’s, Fionn Regan, Fleet Foxes, and, of course, Kramies. Do please oblige. In the meantime, here is the great one with his classic ‘Sea Otter Cottage’.
If you’re in dire need of a genre-busting collaboration, then turn the page. Look elsewhere. Move on. Because Sam Beam and Ben Bridwell are in no mood to reshape musical history. And good for them. This is an album that will keep their fans more than happy for now. It’s a covers album. That’s fine, except it means that at least one of your most cherished indie-folk heroes must be a closet Sade fan. In fairness, though, Beam and Bridwell’s version of the 1980s, late-night, faux-jazz balladeer’s ‘Bullet Proof Soul’ is one of the highlights of the set. Other artists covered include Talking Heads, El Perro del Mar, Ronnie Lane, and Spiritualized. Eclectic indeed. What’s striking, though, is that they’ve all been transformed into a very coherent sound. It’s not the pop symphonies of Sam Beam’s recent outings, or his early folk whisperings. But then neither is it Ben Bridwell’s rocked-out Americana. Instead, think more in terms of Band of Horses Acoustic at the Ryman and you’d be in the right ballpark. The lap steel is a constant presence and there’s a muted accordion in the background at times. It’s a gentle, but at times a mightily rewarding experience. Ben Bridwell’s ‘Straight and Narrow’ is more than worth the entrance fee. And it’s interesting to compare Sam Beam’s cover of JJ Cale’s ‘Magnolia’ with Lucinda Williams’ version from last year. Both are away from their babe in New Orleans, but whereas Lucinda Williams makes you feel like her heart is being wrenched from its very moorings by the absence, Sam Beam makes it sound like his heart is jumping with joy just to have someone down there who likes him. Sam Beam and Ben Bridwell will both be back to their day jobs soon enough, but in the meantime they’ve produced an album that’s simple in both conception and exposition, but one that’s well worth the effort nonetheless.
The best ideas are the simplest ones. Band of Horses playing an acoustic set. Now that’s a genius idea. The guys like to thrash out the heavy numbers. And they can be really good at them. But some of the best Band of Horses songs are the more thoughtful ones. ‘Window Blues’ from Cease To Begin, ‘Slow Cruel Hands of Time’ from Mirage Rock and the magnificent ‘Reilly’s Dream’ from the Sonic Ranch sessions. Now, having debuted the idea on a Spotify exclusive, they’ve taken a bunch of their most well-known songs and given them the full acoustic treatment. And at The Ryman no less. The good news is that they sound great. The interplay of the piano with the guitars works really well, keeping the melody up front while giving the songs a nice new sound. ‘The Funeral’ really stands out and ‘Factory’ picks up a melancholy that was slightly buried before. But they do make a couple of strange choices. For one, there are no drums. Maybe it makes things more acoustic, more authentic, but it also means that some of the arrangements lack a little lustre. And then there’s the song selection. For the most part, they’ve chosen tracks that are already pretty down tempo. ‘Neighbor’, ‘Marry Song’, ‘The Funeral’, ‘Detlef Schrempf’. Only a couple of choices are originally up tempo numbers. One, ‘Wicked Gil’, is totally transformed. Slowed down, it’s almost unrecognisable and in a really good way. But, amazingly, ‘Weed Party’ is the revelation. While sometimes the down tempo song selection make things sound just a little too reverential, this one is allowed to retain its zip. It’s only a shame that it’s not on the standard version of the album and that a few more like it aren’t included in the set. (Tip: try You Tube). Band of Horses acoustic at The Ryman is a genuinely good idea that works really well. Next time, break out the drums, play ‘Ode To LRC’ and things would be perfect.
Here are my 6th-10th favourite releases of 2012, in no particular order:
How do you follow an album like Veckatimest? The answer. Don’t record anything for a while and then try to scale things back a little when you do. The strategy worked. Shields wasn’t quite the tour de force of its predecessor, but it still contained some great songs with ‘Sleeping Ute’ probably the best of the lot. Better than that, it contained some sublime moments that only Grizzly Bear can conjure up. When the chorus kicks in on ‘Yet Again’, there’s only one band you can be listening to. There’s no bigger compliment.
Anais Mitchell also faced the ‘how do you follow that’ syndrome. Her previous release, Hadestown, was truly unique. With some help from Bon Iver and others, she retold a version of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, setting it in Depression-era US. On this album, she reverted to the individual-song format, but more than one told its own story. The title track itself was a version of the Great American Novel. And when the protagonist of ‘Shepherd’ loses his pregnant wife, there’s not a dry eye in the house.
Band of Horses are bad boys, aren’t they? They have the tattoos, the bad teeth, and they always look like they’ve just got out of bed. So they’re best when they rock out, right? Wrong. It’s when they slow down that they’re at their best. ‘Slow Cruel Hands of Time’ is an old theme, but it’s told beautifully. ‘Long Vows’ and ‘Heartbreak on the 101’ likewise. And why did they ever leave ‘Reilly’s Dream’ off the main album? It’s as good as ‘Detlef Schrempf’ and, to Horseheads, that’s saying something.
Swedish AM-friendly country rock. On paper, that’s not a great combination. But, two things make this record stand out. One, the songs are really strong. Two, boy, can these guys sing? The Söderberg sisters make Crosby, Stills and Nash sound like a bunch of old hippies. Oh, hang on. Anyhow, a good rule of thumb is that if a song sound timeless, then it probably is. And the ones on this album sound like they’ve already been around for a very long while.
Paul Buchanan’s most recent collection of musical pointillism was beautifully executed. Neo-impressionistic pictures of life at its most ordinary, combining to form an experience that was at once melancholy and uplifting. Only the slightest orchestration. Mainly just the singer, a piano, and some affecting melodies. It was as much the delivery of the songs as the songs themselves that made this such a rewarding listen.
Over the course of three albums Band of Horses perfected the quick/slow method of song-writing. For every song where the guitars were thrashed out of sight, and there were plenty of them, there was another song that showed the boys were actually, like, really sensitive. They hit this formula big time on their third album, Infinite Arms. It was scarcely listenable. Pedestrian. Hard work. Ho hum. Now, with the record company promoting them in the hope of stadium-level super-stardom, you’d expect the new album to be even ‘ho-er’ and ‘hum-er’. Right? Right, but you’d be wrong. There are only a couple of outright thrash-y songs on the new album, including the pre-release single, ‘Knock Knock’, which is, well, ho hum – at best. Instead, the guys have embraced their inner Neil Young, grasped their Eagles totem, listened to their old America albums on vinyl, and written a really nice set of songs. The record company will be slightly disappointed. There are no out-and-out crowd pleasers here. The savvy music critics will absolutely hate it. After all, with this album Band of Horses are not so much pushing the musical envelope as rolling it into the shape of one big, arena-sized spliff. But guess what? The boys sound as if they actually enjoyed recording these songs, rather than filling them in like some colour-by-numbers book. Another album the same would probably be too much to stomach. But, you know, by not replicating the same predictable quick/slow formula as before, the guys have delivered a very listenable product and in its own way one that’s slightly subversive too.