RATE INFINITE ARMS:
Even without the nature-filled videos accompanying the first two singles, the album's "starry night" cover art, and even the album stream's web page and its accompanying pictures for each song, Band of Horses' Infinite Arms does a remarkable job of creating imagery with its music. Everything on the album, from the rollicking "Compliments" to the softer, harmonized "Blue Beard," begs to be played on a road trip, with the windows down, on a never-ending open trail.
This exceptional quality of lead singer Ben Bridwell and company has endless benefits, but it leaves the album with some shortcomings. While Infinite Arms is gorgeous throughout, it doesn't contain too many songs that grip you, rarely demanding your attention the way stunners like "Is There A Ghost" and "Ode To LRC" did on 2007's Cease To Begin. Still, like that incredible album, the music on Arms is perfect for swaying, for montages on television shows, and for car rides. For better or for worse, Band of Horses have now crafted 12 tracks that don't individually stand out, and instead blend into one cohesive album that conveys a distinctive feeling and mood as a whole.
"Factory" sets the tone perfectly, with pretty strings that accurately match Arms' "sunny day road trip" vibe. Gorgeous but a little long and droning toward the end, "Factory" also exemplifies why this album is sometimes better when played in the background. Still, every time the strings hit, they hit powerfully.
The album's other slower jams are mostly great, with just one dud. Call me a bad critic, but the dull "Infinite Arms" resulted in some wandering around the internet, and a loss of interest in the music. "Blue Beard," however, is a phenomenal tune that is loaded with the emotion that Band of Horses so frequently, successfully deliver. The song is powered by Bridwell's typically awesome vocals: "The Midwestern sky," he sings, "is gray and cold/the sun never shines, but that's alright." "Blue Beard" also shines due to its clashing cymbals and "la-la-la-ooo" backdrop. More summer nights than Rocky Mountain day trip, it's an album standout.
"On My Way Back Home" features a building, almost Spanish salsa beat that drives the song and accompanies some calm instrumentation. Bridwell hits some remarkable notes on this one, both pitch-wise and lyrics-wise: "Pissing myself away, in the form of song." While the song's closing build amounts to nothing special and feels like a missed opportunity, the track as a whole has that distinctive slow/fast, sad/happy tone that is now a Band of Horses trademark.
Straightforward rockers like "Compliments," "Laredo," and "Northwest Apartment" are just that: straightforward and rocking. Each is solid, and different, keeping afloat the pace of the album and easily re-playable. "Dilly" should be on that list of straightforward rockers, but instead it falls flat, feeling a bit commercial and out of place.
I've already mentioned the album's "slow jams," but those are far different from true, raw acoustic ballads, which one would thing should be right down Bridwell's alley. He gives it a shot with "Evening Kitchen," and it works beautifully, almost eerily sounding like a duet with a female vocalist (is it?). This touch is even more effective with the lyrics, which describe a realistic conflict between lovers. "You wasted my time/it's true, it's true...I called off my plans/I counted on you, on you."
It's songs like "Kitchen," tracks that expand the dimensions of Bridwell and friends that demonstrate a clear development in sound for the band. "Older," which wouldn't sound out of place on an Avett Brothers album, is essentially a country song. Its chorus might be Arms' catchiest, and its closing moments without instrumentation are among the album's finest.
Most exemplifying this expansion in Band of Horses' sound (not that their massive Cease to Begin tracks left much room for expansion) is its 6-minute closer. "Neighbor" immediately brings Fleet Foxes to mind with it's quiet, multiple-part harmony. It stays small and quiet for 1 minute and 50 seconds, when a soulful piano chord jumps in and magnificently front and center. I'm always a sucker for piano, and on this track it makes me wish Bridwell utilized it more often. For a while, the song almost sounds like an acoustic epilogue to "Compliments," and that's a pretty perfect way to end an album. But it unexpectedly explodes at 3 and a half minutes in, reminiscent of Titus Andronicus' "A Pot In Which To Piss" and its epic breakdown. "Neighbor" is truly a how-to for album closers.
It is strange, however, that the song ends with a gradual, never-ending fadeout instead of a definitive closing line or note. But who am I to tell this band what to do? After three straight great albums, Band of Horses can do whatever they want now. Because even though Infinite Arms occasionally feels like Cease To Begin lite, it still contains all of the fundamental qualities of the band we know and love, and will merit just as many plays.
80 — Excellent. One of best offerings of the year, but may only appeal to fans of that genre. [Rating Scale]
Stream Infinite Armsat bandofhorses.com.