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Band of Horses - Cease to Begin Print E-mail
Tuesday, 01 January 2008
ImageThough typically I see little reason to take pity on bandwagon-jumping bands when they’re later judged by history to suffer bad comparisons to the original bands that they’re ripping off, there are times when you have to acknowledge tragically bad timing. For instance, even though they clearly took inspiration from the other bands of the British Invasion, who knows how massive the Kinks might have been had they not spent their entire careers playing a distant fourth to the Beatles, Rolling Stones and the Who. Sure, today they’re rightly regarded as one of the greatest bands in rock’s history, but the disparity between the acclaim they’ve received compared to their similarly talented peers is nothing short of a karmic injustice. Take John Prine or Townes Van Zandt, two singer-songwriters whose smart writing and lack of commercial appeal kept them buried under a new wave of populist anthem-makers like Bruce Springsteen and James Taylor in the 1970s. And then there’s Band of Horses, a reverb-drenched Americana band from Seattle who have developed a remarkable ability to craft gorgeously ethereal towers of ringing guitars and soaring vocals – a band that just happens to have the bad fortune of sounding almost exactly like the widely acclaimed and better known My Morning Jacket.

With both bands having roots in the South – Band of Horses’ principle songwriter and vocalist Ben Bridwell, drummer Creighton Barrett and bassist Rob Hampton all hail from South Carolina, and the members of My Morning Jacket operate out of Kentucky – some incidental resemblances are natural. But the vocal similarities between Bridwell and My Morning Jacket lead singer Jim James are uncanny. Both favor copious amounts of reverb on their versatile tenors, going from soft whispers to roaring climaxes on the turn of a note. Both write songs with surging layers of guitar that rumble and swirl, softly tearing holes in the sonic atmosphere of their arrangements. Both are receiving increased exposure through high profile placement of songs in commercials and on TV shows. My Morning Jacket just happened to get there first, and in the mind of most people, that’s all that matters.
Following up their breakthrough debut, 2006’s Everything All the Time, Band of Horses entered the process of recording Cease to Begin with a lot of expectations and one fewer member, with guitarist Mat Brooke leaving the band under reportedly contentious circumstances. With Bridwell having formed the band in 2004 after departing Seattle-area band Carissa’s Wierd, he dealt with those pressures by ending a decade of life on the West Coast, returning to the band to their original South Carolina stomping grounds, and the influence of the South hangs heavy over the album. My Morning Jacket might be the band most noted for the Southern rock pedigree, but here Band of Horses makes the first tentative move to embrace that legacy.

Case in point, with handclaps and rolling gospel piano lines, “The General Specific” sounds like something pulled from the catalog of one of country music’s famed brother duos, the Everly Brothers, with Bridwell playing both siblings with his gorgeous close harmonies. There’s also “Marry Song,” a Southern-tinged ballad that is set at a wedding, with wistful greetings to family and friends over plaintive electric piano lines and greasy guitars. The weary slide guitar and tinkling banjo of “Window Blues” is even better, with Bridwell’s regret-filled vocal closing the album on an understated note. The rest of the disc is not quite so subtle.

As with their debut, Band of Horses are masters of simple yet transcendent guitar anthems, from the stormy supercharged rounds of “Cigarettes, Wedding Bands” to the driving climax of “Is There a Ghost,” a dazzlingly repetitive track that seems to be a rumination on being kept awake by a pesky apparition. The influence of the grungier side of Neil Young continues to pop up, most evident in the stomping “Ode to LRC,” a track that shifts from rousing distortion into luminescent synths and flowing choruses that provide a startling counterpoint to the song’s muscular first half. Best of all is “No One’s Gonna Love You,” a beautifully sappy power ballad with sweetly ringing minor chords and clipped sentimentality that is bound to end up as the first dance at a few hipster weddings.

In the end, Band of Horses have some work to do before every first paragraph written about them will include a mention of My Morning Jacket, but the world could do worse than to have two bands that create such otherworldly sonic terrains. That they happen to live in adjoining neighborhoods shouldn’t matter much, as both bands have their own distinctive charms and neither seems to be interested in cashing in on the other’s success. For a second album, Cease to Begin is certainly no disappointment, but it comes off as a bit slight, taken as a whole. Retracing many of the best moments from their debut and adding a few new shades, it’s arguably their debut’s equal on a song-by-song basis. Still, at 10 songs, one of which is only a brief instrumental interlude, the album lacks the epic sprawl that would have made it an unmitigated success. For now, Band of Horses will just have to be content to remain the best band toiling in My Morning Jacket’s shadow.

Though producer Phil Ek favors large doses of reverb, Cease to Begin retrains a crispness that is uncommon for an album whose textures sound so uncompromisingly large. As such, it’s a gorgeous sounding record, with gritty layers of distortion, piercingly crystalline guitar lines and full-bodied harmonies rushing to fill every inch of open space. Even so, the album has a distinct sense of atmosphere, despite its massive sounding textures, striking the perfect balance between such moments of largesse and precision. With everything but the vocals balanced in the mix, the simple arrangements don’t feature many intricate touches that will be brought out by high-end equipment, and should sound great blasting out of cheap car speakers or exorbitantly expensive stereos.

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