I read an article recently that said every artist only ever creates a maximum of twelve works in their whole career. It was one of those contentious statements that immediately clicked with my snobbish sense of superiority regarding music; so many bands just end up rehashing the same old themes and ideas over and over again, and how often is it that a band creates a truly exceptional record? If a band's lucky they might manage one perfect album, but most good acts can only realistically hope to include one or two great songs on their records. If you were to play any of your favourite albums and listen with totally unbiased ears - excluding any nostalgic attachment you might have to the record - and examined it in forensic detail, how many of the tracks would you say are truly "great"? A really classic album might produce six or seven, but who can honestly say they know of an LP with absolutely no "filler" in it at all?
And this is where the theory falls apart, because I imagine quite a few people can... And truth be told I'd probably count myself amongst them. To separate the act of listening from the emotional responses that automatically appear is to miss the point entirely. Some tracks may well stand out as obvious "singles" but the great records, the ones that stand up to intense repeat-listening, are about far more than that. When listened to end-to-end they sweep you up and take you on a journey from start to finish; with ups and downs, to be sure, but that's all part of the experience. A great record is one that stands as a compete item; the "total work of art".
With their past two records, Band of Horses have not quite managed to deliver on the promise of their singles. 2006's Everything All the Time, in particular, was dominated by the fantastic track Funeral; a song which has in my mind come to define the band. On the back of this spectacular success (it's a track I listen to an awful lot, even now, four years later) I've always made an effort to listen to their new stuff on the off-chance that there's be a new Funeral hidden in their midst, and with their latest LP, Infinite Arms, I've given them a longer-than-average session on my to-be-absorbed playlist. One of the upshots of my summer-hiatus from the blogosphere was the fact that I could once again devote my listening time to the albums that would have previously, in my pre-blogging days, have been give a few months to wear themselves in*. So, quite a bit after the fact, was the verdict on the new record any different? Well, kind of...
Infinite Arms certainly fits together as a complete album, as opposed to merely a collection of singles and filler. But whereas normally that's an excuse for me to erupt in bubbling praise (you all know how much I like a "proper" album) in this instance the effect is spoiled by the fact that I just don't like it. They've clearly been working on advancing their collective sound (always an admirable feat) while they've maintained a through-flow for all the albums by retaining Phil Ek as producer (again, something that's generally laudable) but sadly the results left me very cold indeed. As far as I'm concerned this record smacks far too much of Americana for me to take it seriously. Fleet Foxes (another Ek project, incidentally) have done the Crosby, Stills and Nash revival to death already, and this record just feels like a pale imitation of a pale imitation of something I never really liked in the first place. It's too smooth, too smarmy, too rich for me to take it seriously (a slickness most evident of the abysmal Compliments). There's a cloying quality to the record that really sticks in the throat most unpleasantly.
I'm told that Band of Horses front-man and leading light Ben Bridwell** has made more of an effort to include the other band members in the creation of this record, and that may be where the trouble lies. This record just sounds like any other American country-rock pub band you could care to mention; a severe let-down of the potential on display in Funeral. Lead single Laredo is downright dreadful, but it's not all a disaster - Dilly, for one, isn't that awful - but for a band of the obvious calibre of Band of Horses to be producing an album where the highlight is merely "not that awful" is a sore disappointment.
Band of Horses - Compliments [audio //www.bearfacedrecords.com/EbMBlog_mp3s/BandOfHorses/BandOfHorses_Compliments.mp3]
Band of Horses - Dilly [audio //www.bearfacedrecords.com/EbMBlog_mp3s/BandOfHorses/BandOfHorses_Dilly.mp3]
*Expect slightly belated reviews of the other big releases of early 2010 in the coming weeks, particularly the recent efforts by The National and Frightened Rabbit.
**Most famous, obviously, for his number two slot in the Eaten by Monsters Top Five Beards in Indie Rock list from back in 2008.