Contrary to popular opinion, polish and focus are not always good things. This is especially true for indie-rock bands, for which shaggy arrangement and reckless imagination are often powerful virtues (need I even trot out the obligatory Pavement and Guided by Voices references?). Cease to Begin, the second album from threesome Band of Horses (and first without cofounder Mat Brooke), is an interesting example of precisely this. Oddly enough, it’s the very formal precision that makes the album so enjoyable in the first place that, after a few good listens, also renders it sort of boring.
Unlike last year’s terrific debut, Everything All the Time, you’re not going to find much variety in the musical flavor here. That’s not necessarily a bad thing either. Cease to Begin is a ten-piece set of tuneful, outrageously well-crafted indie-pop songs that are about as well-written and slickly produced (thank you, Phil Ek) as anything out there. But this alone is not enough to make a truly compelling record. “Is There a Ghost,” the album’s mediocre opening salvo, is illustrative: a basic power-pop track that, as skillfully shaped as it is, really fails to illicit any kind of reaction beyond an almost academic appreciation for its sheer craft.
The album really doesn’t begin to cook till about the third track, and once you reach the beautiful “Detlef Schrempf,” it gets harder to resist Cease to Begin‘s palpable Southern charm. This is another noticeable separation from Everything All the Time, by the way — a grassroots authenticity tied to a dark, Southern gothic no doubt informed by Ben Bridwell’s (the band’s primary creative force now that Brooke is gone) relocation to South Carolina to be closer to his family. Actually, there is an argument to be made here that Cease to Begin‘s principal achievement is its seamless fusion of alt-country with pop; that, of course, has been done well before by Wilco and others, but never has it been this slick. “Marry Song” would be your best evidence, a sleepy, backwoods ode to love and marriage that showcases Bridwell’s pitch-perfect country phrasing, the kind Jeff Tweedy would probably kill for. “The General Specific” is another solid performance in this vein, merging the band’s knack for power-pop (see the terrific, Doves-sounding “Islands on the Coast”) with a Southern piano-stomp straight out of mid-century Appalachia.
My central beef with Cease to Begin is not really its lack of variety, but the fact that if it just took a few more chances it could’ve been great. Right now it’s merely very good. It has its mediocre tracks for sure (“Ode to LRC,” “Cigarettes, Wedding Bands”), but the sheer pop perfection of its better ones really makes this an album that deserves to be heard, even if it’s not terribly vital. How much any of this has to do with Brooke’s recent exodus is up for debate. You can probably make a convincing argument that his loss is directly responsible for Cease to Begin’s monolithic sensibility, but I’m not going there. I’d much rather just listen to the stylish country ballad that is the album’s gorgeous closer, “Window Blues,” and lightly float away on that final banjo strum — the perfect ending to a flawed but often moving album.