There’s sort of an unspoken belief in indie rock today that says the more experimental you are as a band, the better. Pushing the fringes is “in.” But in their latest release Mirage Rock, Band Of Horses cuts completely against the grain of that belief.
What’s crazy is how well it works.
The thing is, Band Of Horses could have gone with the flow instead of turning and swimming upstream, and no one would have thought any worse of them. After offering two very presentable records on Sub Pop, they signed to a major label for their third release Infinite Arms, which cranked up the reverb and gave the band a more current, “dreamier” sound. By all accounts, it seems that formula was working; the album did very well, and even earned a Grammy nod. It stands to reason that the next album would keep following that path.
But apparently, that wasn’t enough for Band of Horses. For Mirage Rock, it seems like the band made a collective decision to dial back the production and experimental vibe, turn and look at the elements that make them a good rock band, and just focus on those things. So they brought on iconic producer Glyn Johns (The Who, Led Zeppelin, Joe Cocker, Eric Clapton) and recorded their album analog, live in the studio, deliberately avoiding the bells and whistles.
The end result is an indie rock record that frequently tips its hat to classic Americana rock—and it sounds awesome. Band of Horses has always tinged their sound with a bit of roots music; this time, they dove into that sound with both feet, fully embracing the sonic elements that have helped define them. This record reminds me of America. I say that as a play on words: it reminds me of America the country, AND America the band. It’s roots rock for the twenty-teens, drawing from the 1970’s for inspiration. Some might suggest the band tried to “go retro” and copy the sounds of the past; I say it makes Band of Horses sound more authentic than they ever have before. I think this is who they are; I think they found themselves again on this record.
Must-listens on this record are many, but for me the opening three tracks, “Knock Knock,” “How to Live” and “Slow Cruel Hands of Time” really set the tone for the rest of the record. “Dumpster World” takes a hard look at “modern” civilization, while the closing track “Heartbreak On the 101” is a powerful, haunting ballad showcasing Ben Bridwell’s raspy voice, Ryan Adams-style.
Listening to the record front to back, there was really only one misstep I could detect. In this return to roots music, Band Of Horses touches on a variety of genres. This isn’t bad in itself, unless the differences between songs become jarring. “Feud,” the rockiest song on the record, is immediately followed by the smooth country steel guitar sounds of “Long Vows,” and the difference is such that it feels like those two songs don’t belong on the same record.
Time will tell whether Mirage Rock will see the same kind of success as Infinite Arms, but regardless of the sales numbers, kudos to the band for giving us a deeper glimpse into who they are. By looking backward just a little, Band Of Horses has put out a record that I think is one of the best of their career so far.