Pretty Ponies

Band of Horses makes a run for college rock

When you first encounter the Band of Horses song "The Funeral," it seems innocuous enough. The group's blog-ubiquitous single opens with two pristine finger-picked guitar lines — one an octave higher than the other, both wringing wet with the kind of reverb that brings to mind an abandoned airplane hangar. It's very, ahem, pastoral.

Ben Bridwell, the Seattle act's 28-year-old singer and songwriter, enters with an oblique one-liner that seems pulled from the middle of a half-formed thought, "Coming up only to hold you under." For another minute, his high tenor coos over the unapologetically saccharine tune, and then, quite out of nowhere, the song explodes. With the torrent of distorted guitars and a power-ballad backbeat, the empty space is suddenly full; every inch of room is piled with guitars, cymbals, and strained vocals. If it brings to mind college radio from the Clinton years, that was Bridwell's intention.

"Growing up in South Carolina," he explains with a hint of a Southern accent, "the first music I was excited about was the kind of independent music that could be real fragile at one minute, and sound real big and epic the next. I knew if I ever made a record I wanted to be able to do that."

When Bridwell talks about music he grew up on, he names then-idols like Archers of Loaf and Pavement, bands that mastered the dynamic volatility and sheer volume that drive much of Band of Horses' debut, Everything All the Time. When the tunes are more straightforward, like "The Weed Party," any number of Bridwell's contemporaries come to mind — My Morning Jacket and Sub Pop labelmates the Shins certainly — but the songwriting is too clever to pin influences on one source. The collection's common three-guitar arrangements also nod to Bridwell's Northwest heroes, Built to Spill.

"Listing to the bands around you is part of being in a band in Seattle really," Bridwell says. "You just kind of soak up everything else that's going on in the city."

The elegant balladry of tunes like "Part One" and "St. Augustine" makes clear that Bridwell absorbed just as much from his past work with now-defunct Carissa's Wierd (sic). It wasn't until Carissa's Wierd split after its 10-year run that Bridwell started really working on songwriting. "I had written some songs before, but never as seriously," he says. "I didn't know what else to do; I was writing out of sheer desperation."

Informed by Carissa's whispering heartbreakers, the tunes that Bridwell came up with are decidedly more plugged-in than those of his former project. Armed with some home-recorded demos, he played a few shows as Horses (which caused trouble with former members of a one-album, '60s psych pop band by the same name) and won over the sneaker-gazing set in Seattle. After witnessing a couple of dates Bridwell did with friend Iron & Wine (frontman Sam Beam shares his South Carolina roots), Sub Pop agreed to release the 10-song Everything.

Although Bridwell is quick to admit that Band of Horses has enjoyed some initial acclaim, the finest tracks on Everything — standout tunes like "The Funeral" and the nearly danceable "Wicked Gil" — are steeped in desperation stemming from the demise of his old band.

"When that project dissolved I just kept asking myself, 'What the hell are you going to do?'" says Bridwell. "I was panicking. I eventually I realized what I had to do." He pauses a moment before stating the obvious. "That I had to do this."

 
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