The instinct to be disappointed in a band’s new record for a marked shift in sound is a strong one indeed, particularly if you’ve been tied to the band for a while now; consider recent examples from the indie world like The Walkmen, freshly saddled with the curious “dad-rock” moniker by snarkier critics, or The Avett Brothers, who’s newest album, The Carpenter, consciously gravitates towards a more elegant and radio-friendly brand of Americana, and away from the raw, stomping bluegrass-punk of their earliest works. There’s a lot to be said about consistency and artistic identity, to be sure, but it seems that fans intent on tying an artist to a particular style run the very real risk of missing out on good records.
Add Band of Horses to the list, then: Mirage Rock is reasonably forthright about retreating from the reverb-and-weed-soaked stargazing of their first two records – “a ramshackle crew has something to prove”, sings lead Horse Ben Bridwell right there on the album’s opener, and it’s not difficult to read it as a treatise on the state of his band – and it’s also kind of nice. Best Band of Horses album to date? Probably not – almost certainly not, in fact. But it’s quite nice.
For one, this particular line-up of BoH have grown terrifically comfortable with one another. Bridwell once joked that this album’s predecessor, 2010′s excellent Infinite Arms, felt like the first actual Band of Horses record, and Mirage Rock seems to solidify that notion. It’s a hard sentiment to argue with, really – Bridwell is front and center on even their best album, 2007′s Cease to Begin, while Arms and Mirage clearly benefit from the spirit of collaboration fostered by Band of Horses 2.0. Producer Glyn Johns has a classic-rock pedigree, so perhaps it’s no coincidence that 70′s AM radio oozes from every pore of this thing. The desert winds of milquetoast, America-esque pop-folk breeze effortlessly through “Shut-In Tourist”, “Dumpster World” and “Everything’s Gonna Be Undone”; the record as a whole is painted in lush, vintage Eagles harmonies and Laurel Canyon soft-rock. And indeed, much like the Eagles, the band excels at being greater than the sum of its parts: Bridwell and late-period BoH compatriot Tyler Ramsey are, individually, potent singer/songwriters, but there’s a remarkable consistency of sound to Mirage Rock that owes a lot to that aforementioned spirit of collaboration. If nothing else, this version of Band of Horses knows how to gel as a unit.
And the songs? Well, they’re good; mature, often-languid MOR throwbacks are certainly the order of the day, which is where it’s important to enjoy the band without comparing it to its former self. Band of Horses have come out of the woods and shaved their metaphorical beards (most likely not their actual beards, naturally); their stoner, moonshine-addled lumberjack indie was a fresh breath of woodsy late-summer air, but that’s not where they’re at now. So while Mirage Rock pares back on the emotional immediacy, it’s immaculately performed and produced, and that’s nice too.
Fortunately, Band of Horses aren’t completely out of tricks. “Dumpster World” reads like a familiar “Horse With No Name” revamp until it shifts to an unexpected extended garage-rock vamp and back again; closer “Heartbreak on the 101″ sounds like the sort of fractured, acoustic lament Conor Oberst butters his bread with, until it builds to an inimitable Bridwell crescendo; “Knock Knock” is the sort of frenetic highway-rock BoH have flirted with for years without actually giving over to, and it’s a heady, falsetto-coated rush.
If, in general, the songs don’t hit as hard, that’s okay; Mirage Rock is the sound of the current Band of Horses line-up finding their footing with each other. It’s a consistent, easily-digested song set that probably would lend itself well to the sound of crackling vinyl; and hey, as long as multi-part harmonies like the ones on display in “Everything’s Gonna Be Undone” exist, the world’s a little bit nicer. Mirage Rock may not be it, but Band of Horses 2.0 might have a masterpiece in them yet.