Alt-country is quite the contradiction. How does one take a genre infamous for its cheesy twang and clichéd Americana lyrics and make it appeal to a fandom of indie sycophants? It’s not so simple.
Band of Horses
By combining a lo-fi sound with rock and punk influences and conforming to a grizzly-bearded lumberjack guise (which is all the rage for today’s Brooklyn-based hipsters, by the way), bands like My Morning Jacket, Wilco and Band of Horses not only broke the mold, but became veterans of this alt-genre.
But a veteran status can often lead to a rut. After recording two albums on independent labels, the South Carolina-based Band of Horses switched to Columbia Records in the hopes of reaching a wider audience. The label revamp doesn’t seem to have brought any euphoric changes, though.
Band of Horses’s recent release Infinite Arms isn’t anything new. While the band doesn’t sacrifice the intimate, back-porch sound that fans fell for on Cease to Begin, it neglects to push any sort of melodic boundaries. Instead, the record remains comfortably in the band’s crunchy guitar-folk realm.
Album opener “Factory” begins with Ben Bridwell’s endearingly whiny vocals resonating over a dreamy violin. No surprises here. Even when Bridwell is singing about noshing on a candy bar (“Now then later, I was thinking it over by the snack machine / I thought about you and a candy bar / The Now and Laters, now that I’ve got, stuck between my teeth”) he not only manages to inject a dose of kitsch in the track through a play on words, but he also craftily brings undertones of longing and sentimentality into the seemingly mundane.
“Blue Beard” and title track “Infinite Arms” are the record’s grandiose ballads. While much of the album muddles along in lethargic disappointment, these tracks are full of crisp, drawn-out guitar arrangements in the same sort of stately outfit as “The Funeral” on Everything All the Time. Although Bridwell seems to be holding back on “Blue Beard” due to his lackluster monotone, his weary-eyed, lovelorn lyrics still resonate with a striking vulnerability that many plaid-clads have emulated, but never duplicated. While “Infinite Arms” doesn’t bring the record to a climax, it successfully weaves together themes of yearning, lost love and redemption over sparing screeches of the violin and dusty, reverbed guitars.
The album finally forgoes the banal concept of melodic boredom on “Dilly.” The tempo kicks up and the time signature quickens with abrupt keyboard taps and a cool bass. Exchanging his woeful sorrows for indulgent, playful harmonies, Bridwell brings a refreshing sense of optimism to an otherwise frustratingly self-pitying record.
If Infinite Arms had any critique, it would be its predictability. But that’s OK. For a band composing music that transcends the intimacy of maturation, sometimes it’s reassuring to know that some things never change.