Band of Horses' first two albums, 2006's Everything All The Time and 2007'sCease To Begin, were near-perfect distillations of roaring twang, indie folk and timeless jangle. Vocalist Ben Bridwell whispered and yelped lyrics that were alternately joyful and broken, his reverb-haunted voice comparable to My Morning Jacket's Jim James after huffing helium. On the strength of these releases, the South Carolina-via-Seattle band earned heaps of rave reviews and an ever-increasing fan base.
Naturally, the group's third album, Infinite Arms, is a sonic step forward. Although again produced by Phil Ek, who helmed Time and Begin, Arms feels bigger–the difference between an independent art-house film and a big-budget summer blockbuster. Bridwell's vocals are glossier, while the album's rock arrangements are lush and complex. Hi-fi touches–schmaltzy strings ("Factory"), plush organ and piano ("Neighbor") and stacked, church-choir harmonies ("Blue Beard")–add vibrant color.
Arms' strength is its diversity. The Smiths-esque title track and acoustic-guitar-driven "On My Way Back Home" both soar with quiet grace. In contrast, the brisk "Dilly" sounds like a fleshed-out Elliott Smith while the raucous barnstorm "NW Apt." charges forward with punk-leaning drums.
Still, the layered soundscapes often make Arms feel generic and oddly detached. Take "Laredo": As barnstorming riffs march through the tune–think Neil Young's squalls, minus the chaos–Bridwell sings of lost love, his words conflicted by violence and heartache. But his vocal inflections remain free of real distress.
And therein lies the problem: At its best, Arms is a pleasant album, one that sounds good on the surface or as background music. For most bands, that's perfectly acceptable. But for a group like Band Of Horses–whose ambitions have always intersected with being meaningful and transcendent, too–somehow just being acceptable makes Arms fall short.