Friday, October 26, 2007

Mountain Moonshine

Band of Horses – Cease To Begin

The rather lovely packaging for Band of Horses’ second full length (a collection of photocards in keeping with the excellent design of their debut), with its moon and tide image, rather suggests a cold and foreboding work. In reality, ‘Cease to Begin’ is as much full of warmth and compassion as it is a lingering melancholy. It also represents a major stride forward for a band initially all too easy to deride as My Morning Jacket soundalikes. The parallels between the voices of Jim James and Band of Horses’ Ben Bridwell are still transparent but there’s a much broader musicality at work here which places BoH closer to an American folk tradition. Ultimately, there’s more of The Band and less of Lynyrd Skynyrd on ‘Cease To Begin’, a sign that the band are embracing subtlety as much as their beloved southern rock assault.

That being said, the opener ‘Is There A Ghost’ is something of a red herring. It’s by no means a bad song – indeed, it sounded positively thrilling when opening their set at London’s Scala earlier this year. On record though, its limitations cut through a little more than one might hope – it’s essentially the kind of blandly arranged chugging indie of which I’m increasingly sceptical. There’s an insistence and immediacy to its repetitive lyric and melody that sets it apart from the more elusive, slow burning dynamism on offer elsewhere on this fine album.

The overall approach here seems to be one of reducing the grandiose theatrics, instead opting for a more restrained and affecting sound. This is best evidenced by the beguiling 'No One's Gonna Love You', with its echo-laden guitars and haunting melody, effortlessly handled by Bridwell. 'Marry Song' is quite some distance from anything on the group's debut, emphasising lingering Wurlitzer chords over guitars, and again giving the melody plenty of space to breathe.

In this context, the group allow themselves plenty of opportunity for interplay, and things occasionally veer in unexpected directions. There's some spirited honky tonk amidst the lush, melancholy balladry and 'Ode To LRC' is something of a love song to a lost dog. The spirit of Neil Young is cursing through these songs, but the music is rarely ever as stodgy or relentless as Crazy Horse at their worst. Instead, 'Cease To Begin' offers a fresh spin on the Appalachian sound, and is as fresh and enthralling as the mountain air.

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