Band of Horses have gone on record claiming that their new album “Infinite Arms” is a “game-changer” for them. What’s really changed about the group is the lineup. Several band members have come and go over the past two albums, and the only constant connecting the three records at this point is frontman Ben Bridwell. They are currently a five-piece ensemble, and “Infinite Arms” marks the first time these guys have fully collaborated in the writing and composition of the songs. This change in how they do business is also somewhat evident in their sound, as having a full band means fuller sounding songs on the whole, along with the addition of some intense vocal harmonies. If you were expecting some real curveballs like a shift in style, chances are you’ll be disappointed. Of course if you liked what Band of Horses were doing before you might be disappointed anyways.
On their first two albums, Band of Horses found a way to take an unoriginal sound and make it all their own. They were skating the thin line between traditional indie rock and alt-country, coming from the same angle that bands like Wilco and My Morning Jacket have succeeded at before them. What broke Band of Horses away from the pack were two things – a strong ear for invigorating and fun hooks along with the intense and distinctive vocal performance of Ben Bridwell. “Infinite Arms” is unfortunately missing both those elements. Listening to the album is closer to taking a sleeping pill with all the slow acoustic-driven songs. They’re taking a decidedly stronger alt-country angle here than they ever have before, and the couple songs (“Compliments”, “NW Apt.”) that feel like they could have found a stylistic home on the previous two Band of Horses albums feel whitewashed and flat rather than brimming with fun and soaring possibility. A few songs legitimately sound like the entire band was chained to their instruments and told they couldn’t leave the studio until the songs were finished. Following on that same beat, while Ben Bridwell is still the unequivocal leader of the group, his vocals are far more contained and less dominant than they have been in the past. There aren’t any choruses that allow him to stretch his singing wings and soar above everything else. That’s largely due to the subdued nature of the album, not lending itself as well to such expansiveness. Add in these new vocal harmonies, and Bridwell’s signature voice gets lost in the mix more often. The loss of his singular vocal presence at points can be just a little upsetting, but the harmonies actually do far more good than harm in the end.
The experience of listening to “Infinite Arms” can best be equated to watching a beauty pageant. Everything looks and sounds very well put together, and the record does contain some of the band’s most gorgeous songs to date. The problem comes when you try and look beyond that superficial beauty and try to find something deeper. The lyrics won’t help you any, because the generalized platitudes Bridwell has always written (and often covered up by an enthusiastic or unique singing of said lines) are still there, but with fewer acrobatics to distract you from their emptiness. Everything also feels like it’s covered in some sort of glossy sheen that may preserve it in time but lacks the emotional continence to give the accurate impression the band members believe in what they’re doing. Given that Band of Horses have made the leap from indie powerhouse Sub Pop to the major label dens of Columbia, a loss of distinction and the pressure to come through with a money-making hit sort of come with the territory. With “Infinite Arms” they’re submitting to at least one of those two caveats as they tend to sound like any number of country and alt-country bands making music today. Whether or not the album spawns a legitimate hit remains to be seen. The thing is, outside of this new album, all indicators suggested that Band of Horses deserved every shred of success they had gotten. The music world was supposed to be a better place once these guys finally hit the big time. Instead, it feels like they broke down and are now functioning with a chip on their shoulders. The album might be titled “Infinite Arms”, but despite its attempted warm embrace, those arms don’t stretch nearly far enough anymore.