I was upset when I found out that Mat Brooke had quit Band of Horses, though I didn’t realize at the time how great an influence he had over the band’s sound. Although I really enjoyed the subdued breathing of "I Go to the Barn Because I Like The" and "St. Augustine," not until listening to Band of Horses’ second album, and now to Grand Archives, did I see that it wasn’t Brooke who flew from the band, but Ben Bridwell and company who tore up from the roots and bought stock in the stratosphere. That’s not to say that I didn’t like Cease to Begin, or that I prefer Grand Archives; if the former deserves to be appreciated on its own terms, so does the latter.
Even so, it becomes apparent over the course of Grand Archives’ debut that Brooke lacks the facile song-writing talent that buoys Bridwell’s consistently captivating output. Grand Archives does manage to float for a while on the grace of tunes like "Index Moon," a typical Brooke lullaby cut with reverberating guitar breakdowns and Hammond organ, recalling the jam-pop of My Morning Jacket and, more proximally, Band of Horses. I was also struck by "George Kaminski," a sorrowful tune sulking with glockenspiel, well-placed slide-guitar and a lump in its throat. And the restless intensity of "Sleepdriving" made me nostalgic for the doleful pop of ’90s acts like the Wallflowers or Savage Garden (so sue me).
Perhaps in an effort to establish himself outside the gloom of Carissa’s Wierd and the ambitious gallop of Band of Horses, or maybe just to have some fun, Brooke often defaults to West Coast pop and the sounds of ’70s Britain. "Miniature Birds" is a jaunty and jazzy bag of whistles, harmonies, horns, and harmonicas right out of the Nick Drake’s songbook. "A Setting Sun" culls from the whimsical folk of the Shins and the endearing keyboard confections of the Beach Boys.
The album brims with "ba da da"s, waddling horns and woozy strings, but Brooke’s pop feels like it lacks commitment the more it strays from his earnest work with Band of Horses. Opener "Torn Blue Foam Couch" sleepily retraces Pachelbel’s Canon, and "Crime Window" approximates Okkervil River’s more explosive moments while lacking the brilliant presence of Will Sheff or Bridwell’s clarion call. "Louis Riel" sports some nice French horn, and "A Setting Sun" makes good use of pedal steel, but both songs are ultimately forgettable with their uniformly jaunty beats and disposable hooks.
I’m not criticizing Brooke’s band for its breezy mood or poppy simplicity. But an album needs more than interesting instruments, good production, and satisfying harmonies to remain captivating after a few listens. Grand Archives ought to be more than a library of dusty riffs and Beach Boys records; Brooke’s work succeeds where it adds fresh material to the shelves.