Band of Horses Fend Off a Critical Backlash

Few bands received more attention at this October's CMJ than Band of Horses. The increasingly-hippie-sounding indie band from Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, by way of Seattle was featured in previews of New York's underground music festival by the likes of The New York Times, NPR, and USA Today; never mind that most of those stories were written under the self-fulfilling descriptor of "bands with hype."

It helped that Band of Horses had a brand-new album, Cease to Begin, the follow-up to its widely heralded debut, Everything All the Time. It also helped that many fans and writers hadn't had a chance to hear Cease to Begin, which had just dropped the previous week. If they had heard it, the Band of Horses backlash might have begun a bit earlier.

As it stands, a vocal group of critics who have heard the new record is calling for the band's head. This is partly because Cease to Begin contains some of the sappiest clichés imaginable — including the lyrics "No one is ever gonna love you more than I do" (from "No One's Gonna Love You") and "The world is such a wonderful place" (from "Ode to LRC"). These aren't just verse-filling throwaway lines, mind you. They're choruses and codas, repeated ad nauseam.

Band of Horses: What backlash?
David Belisle
Band of Horses: What backlash?

Still, when guitarist and vocalist Ben Bridwell is on, he's completely on, and even naysaying journalists recognize the band's continuing ability to write catchy, soaring choruses. But the press took aim at Cease to Begin nonetheless. Pitchfork's review threw around terms like "dad-rock" and "granola," while Tiny Mix Tapes called it "music to write term papers to." Garrett Kamps wrote in the Village Voice that Cease to Begin was so bad it suggested that the success of the band's debut "indeed owes more to dumb luck than any of us want to admit."

Despite Bridwell's trite lyrics, I dig the new Band of Horses album for its generous helpings of crashing guitars and smart pop sensibilities. But I'll admit there were many moments when I wondered what the admittedly pro-420 lead singer was smoking. While Everything All the Time doesn't have a single musical clunker, for every arm-pumping banger on Cease to Begin ("Cigarettes, Wedding Bands" and "Islands on the Coast"), there's an equally meandering, unfocused downtempo song. Some, like "Window Blues" and "Marry Song," sound like classic-rock-radio castoffs.

Yet the assertion that Band of Horses hit a severe sophomore slump seems overstated; to me, an album which succeeds as dramatically as it fails is still one worth owning. And in any case, Kamps' "dumb luck" accusation was put to rest at the band's midnight show at the Bowery Ballroom on CMJ's final night. They soldiered through an hour and a half of raucous, on-point performances, playing to their strengths by keeping guitar solos short and choruses punchy.

A single memorable contribution to pop music deserves to be celebrated. Even discounting the duds on Cease to Begin, it's clear that Band of Horses still has a whole concert's worth of gems in its collection. Live, the band pulled out all the crowd-pleasers, including "The Funeral," its inspired heartbreaker about responding to chaos. By embracing the melody, tension, and blissful sonic release that characterize Band of Horses' best singles, "The Funeral" alone makes the group's occasional forays into wankery forgivable.

As Band of Horses fans slowly digest Cease to Begin, it remains to be seen whether the sparks of this backlash will burn out or turn into a full-on brush fire. In the meantime, writers are performing much handwringing about a young band that is still extremely promising.

 
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