Despite its clear strengths, Infinite Arms, the third album from the indie-rock quintet Band of Horses, is a bit of a good-news/bad-news proposition. For those who adore this group – particularly their last album, 2007’s Cease to Begin – Infinite Arms continues the band’s exploration of lovely, slightly mystical tunes steeped in folk and country influences. But rather than a confident step forward, Infinite Arms feels a bit like a holding action for frontman Ben Bridwell, who has crafted an album filled with consistent pleasures but not a lot of surprises.
Softening Their Sound ... and Opening the Door to Criticism
Within the span of about 19 months, Band of Horses put out their first two records, and the close proximity of their releases only helped underline their sonic similarities. With that said, though, 2006’s Everything All the Time
was a more Neil Young
-like guitar record, while Cease to Begin
emphasized a romantic, woodsy back-porch vibe. The constants were Bridwell’s yearning vocals and the hippie-ish quality of the tunes, marking Band of Horses as one of indie-rock’s most likable and melodic groups. The band’s lack of edge, naturally, opened the door to criticism that they were just a generic, safe indie group cribbing from the styles of My Morning Jacket and Built to Spill
. (Not helping matters was that Built to Spill producer Phil Ek worked on Cease to Begin
and Infinite Arms
.) But apparently that criticism hasn’t affected Bridwell’s songwriting one iota. The band’s warm, melancholy spirit permeates Infinite Arms
, resulting in the group’s third straight comfy-old-sweater record.
Beautiful Sad-Eyed Songs
Since the guitar workouts of “The Funeral” and “The Great Salt Lake” off Everything All the Time, Bridwell has turned his attention to stately, majestic ballads on his follow-up albums, and Infinite Arms’ highlights are very much in that vein. The title track is a stunningly beautiful love song accentuated by the sounds of the outdoors and a plaintive, delicate guitar figure. Later, on “Evening Kitchen,” band member Tyler Ramsey comes up with a country-ish lullaby about realizing too late that you’ve let the love of your life get away. Throughout the record, the everyman quality of Bridwell’s voice gives the sad-eyed songs great resonance, but the tunes’ simplicity keeps them from lapsing into soupy melodrama.
A Dose of Optimism
But while Infinite Arms shines brightest at its most gentle, Bridwell has not completely abandoned lively, up-tempo tracks. “Laredo” is feel-good country-rock that follows a familiar Band of Horses lyrical trope: a narrator goes on a trip to forget his troubles at home. The surging melody and echoed vocals in the chorus are so buoyant that it sounds like the singer will be feeling back to normal in no time. On “Dilly,” Bridwell rides a bouncy groove as he explores the promise of second chances, while “NW Apt.” is just a fun guitar number that contains the exuberant line “With three guitars and one amplifier/I’m gonna blow the dust off this scene.” If a Band of Horses ballad allows Bridwell to drown his sorrows, then Infinite Arms’ louder moments give him a chance to indulge in a little optimism.
A Little Predictable
If Infinite Arms
has a weakness, it’s that its strengths are a tad predictable. The album does what it does well, but anyone who has the band’s first two records won’t be particularly blown away by these songs. Then again, Band of Horses fans love this group partly because of their easy, comfortable aesthetic. Infinite Arms
is rock for people looking for reassurance in their weary lives. Ben Bridwell may not give his listeners much new on Infinite Arms
, but there’s no doubt that he gives them exactly what they want with immeasurable skill.
'Infinite Arms' – Best Tracks:
“Evening Kitchen” (Purchase/Download
“Infinite Arms” (Purchase/Download
“Blue Beard” (Purchase/Download
Release date – May 18, 2010
Brown Records/Fat Possum Records/Columbia Records