Ben Bridwell isn’t really from Seattle, but those of us who live here certainly don’t mind claiming him as our own. He grew up in South Carolina, spent time in Tucson, and more recently Minnesota, before moving back to his home state. But, after forming Carissa’s Wierd in the Emerald City, then Band of Horses, and signing with Sub Pop, it didn’t really matter where he was from-to his fans, he was as northwestern as rain, pine trees, and espresso drinks. Bridwell’s Band of Horses was one of a handful of bands that helped change the Seattle music scene transition from one of fluttery-eyed earnest indie twee pop to gravy-laden Southern Americana. All of a sudden, Seattleites seemed less worried about tight tees and angular haircuts, and more into cultivating beards and obtaining button-ups that could be sniffed by Heath Ledger ‘neath Brokeback Mountain.
Infinite Arms, due to its more stable rotation than in previous years, was stated by Bridwell as Band of Horses’ first real album. I’d concur, but for different reasons than personnel. Everything All the Time was the attention grabbing debut, centered around the fiery single that was a perfect balance of expansive balladry and charging indie guitars, “The Funeral.” The album itself was still somewhat tied to the northwestern guitar rock style of producer Phil Ek, and garnered fans accordingly. The follow-up, the more countrified Cease to Begin, was a logical progression, still somewhat rooted in Ek’s flavor (aka another Built to Spill record), but songs such as “No One’s Gonna Love You” showcased a growing depth and songwriting prowess that would come to define their latest release. Ek was ditched, mostly due to scheduling conflicts, but Infinite Arms reaped the benefits of the band’s self-production.
From the outset, Infinite Arms displays a luxuriance that indie rock sometimes makes impossible. Jittery, angular and spastic guitars that have, at times, littered the landscape become a thing of the past, subsumed by lazy chords, lonely twangs and sweeping strings. “Factory” immediately sets that specific tone for the rest of the album, rooting songs in a gorgeous Neil Young / Gram Parsons foundation. First single “Compliments” is probably the one song that doesn’t quite fit, more rock oriented than the rest of the album, though peppered with electric organ that at times recalls Bob Dylan’s groundbreaking years. Though “Laredo” continues the aggressive guitar rock, the vocals present an alternate universe within the song, one of the jilted lover crying in his beer rather than lashing out with vindictiveness. “Blue Beard” might have some fans rechecking their iPod readouts to see if they hit shuffle by mistake, and was switched over to their leaked new Fleet Foxes tracks.
The centerpiece title track is the most vivid example of how far Band of Horses has come. Rather than forcing hooks, it seems that Bridwell simply let the song take its course, drifting harmoniously along, and maturing in the process. The whistling alone could make this track one of the best on the album. “Dilly” proves that Band of Horses can still bring a pop masterpiece to the table and make it fit, showing off vocal acrobatics and accessibility that would make Hall & Oates green with envy. “Older” is the twangiest of the bunch, making me recall my old Eagles records with much fondness. By the time you get to the closing tracks, including the brash and confident “NW Apt,” the sweetness of “For Annabelle” and the epic folk rock religious experience of “Neighbor,” you can see the pattern of features that help Infinite Arms rise above past releases. Bridwell’s voice is in top form, the band, now fully formed, is both polished and versatile, and while each songs seems to build on the other, the album as a whole plays as albums should, cohesively. Infinite Arms could truly be called Band of Horses’ first album, as it’s surely their best.
Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes
The Shins – Oh Inverted World
My Morning Jacket – It Still Moves