The appeal on the first two Band of Horses albums -- 2006's Everything All the Time and 2007's Cease to Begin -- was the interplay of Ben Bridwell's reverb-soaked vocals and the murky guitars that swirled around him. They built up to triumphant choruses with spaced-out, moody verses. It wasn't a new sound, but it was one they did awfully well. They were a powerful rock band because they were understated.
So if you're alarmed when you put in Infinite Arms and hear the lilting, saccharin strings that start off "Factory," well, you should be. This record, which finds Bridwell and company leaving Sub Pop for Columbia, often drifts away from the charms that the band spent two albums winning us all over with. Gone is the moody, organic haze of great tracks like "The Funeral" or "Is There a Ghost?" In place of those, we've got a number of overproduced tracks that push the vocals way up in the mix and coat everything else in a distant sheen.
After the overdone "Factory," where those strings drown out every other sound besides Bridwell's vocals, "Compliments" tries a crunchier kind of rock, but slips in the same way as its slick predecessor. The guitars are buried, and their crunch too simple to give the track much life. "Laredo" starts with promise, with the band in its usual gauzy mode, but then the singing starts, and everything else falls away.
The production here is doing Band of Horses no favors. Bridwell is a fine singer, but his voice works best when its echoing off the other players, not baying slickly above it all. His doubled vocals sound cleaned-up here, too even and steady to really emote the way he has in the past. And, with the band buried so far below him, it's hard to hide some pretty rough lyrics about vending machines in hotel lobbies or banana peels. At one point, Bridwell tries to make a meaningful metaphor out of those Now and Later candies. Seriously.
The few moments that work on Infinite Arms find the guys moving their boozy rock into something much closer to country music. The slick feel actually works once, on "Blue Beard," which sounds an awful lot like Alabama, especially in the shimmering finish. And yes, I mean that in a good way. The twangy "Older" is perhaps the best song here. The melodies finally seem to nail the Beach Boys vibe the harmonies have been chasing all record, and the production is simple. In other words, the guitars get to put their work in here, without too much fiddling with levels.
But on the whole Infinite Arms is an album buried under the weight of its own sound. It's hard to know how this album could have sounded with less ham-handed production, but as it stands the mix here feels like some sleight of hand. Because the triumphant choruses aren't here, and neither are the moody verses. After two confident, distinct rock albums, Band of Horses seem to be searching for something new here, and the production just sweeps in and covers it up when they don't quite find enough, somehow steering them away from their strengths at every turn.
Band of Horses was able to overcome the questions about their much-hyped 2006 debut Everything All The Time with 2007's no less stunning Cease To Begin. After causing a blip of controversy following licensing their music to Walmart in 2007, the band has stayed quiet aside from the occasional CW show licensing before announcing their third album, Infinite Arms, for a May 2010 release. Having fulfilled their contract with Sub Pop, the band has confirmed that Infinite Arms will not be released on the label. Nonetheless, the band will retain the producer of their first two albums, Seattle alt-country luminary Phil Ek.