Band Of Horses' fourth album Mirage Rock is a record that isn't quite sure what it wants to achieve, but it seems perfectly happy to do so without sounding directionless. Much of the production sheen that was a hallmark of predecessor Infinite Arms has been removed in favour of a looser more country feel. It seems a more intimate affair, but lacks some of the punch that made Band Of Horses quite so compelling. Ultimately it's the sound of a band having fun without wanting to repeat themselves. In a word it's a little underwhelming.
However opener and first single 'Knock Knock' doesn't really indicate Mirage Rock's more laid back tendencies. Instead it feels like an updated 60's pop song. The drums and backing vocals along with handclaps bring to mind a strange indie-rock mash-up that piques your interest. It's a great introduction to a record and although the lyrics are lightweight it's clear that Glyn Johns' production work helps it to barrel along at quite a pace. If Mirage Rock had decided to follow this template over its relatively brief 40 minutes, it may well seem less difficult to love the record.
Among Ben Bridwell's nostalgic southern excursions ('Slow Cruel Hands Of Time', 'Shut-in Tourist', for example) are brief flashes of more memorable material. 'A Little Biblical' features some great lyrics; "Welcome to another world, look at the water, look at whatever. We broke the last one apart, put it back together, it didn't matter." It's a carefree guitar led pop song that muses on growing up and moving on without feeling heavy handed.
But just when you think Bridwell may be hitting his stride, along comes 'Dumpster World'. Seemingly harbouring some kind of revelatory social commentary within, it falls flat partly because of its Jekyll and Hyde musical approach. Initially sounding like America's 'Horse With No Name' it takes a massive u-turn and recreates itself as some kind of angry garage rock anthem, before retreating to its quieter counterpart again. It's difficult to think of a more disjointed approach to a song that doesn't really warrant such an overly dramatic gear change.
Nothing else here provokes such a strong reaction, but 'Feud' does remind you that Bridwell is capable of writing more immediate and catchy songs than much of the rest of the more meandering material on the album. Interestingly the strongest track is hidden away right at the end. 'Heartbreak On The 101' is a ballad that oozes regret and destitution. Co-written by Reynolds and Ramsey, it reintroduces the more lavish production of previous records with strings playing a prominent part for the first time on Mirage Rock.
In a way the album, lives up to its title. The hazy nostalgia contained within doesn't really constitute the future for Band Of Horses, it's all a pleasant illusion, like a dream. While the country tinged folk that makes up more than half of the songs is nice enough, Bridwell's southern travelogue reminds you of the strengths of past material. It's likely you'll come away from this musical detour hoping for something a little more focused next time around.
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