Listening to Band of Horses 4th album, Mirage Rock, you might get the feeling that this is a band going through a bit of a mid-life crisis. Continuing to grapple with a sense of how to effectively move forward while paying homage to your two loves, the 1970’s and 1990’s, isn’t an easy feat, but this tension shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, as BOH’s previous three releases rode a fairly lateral reverb drenched wave of 70’s Crazy Horse amp tones delivered with a 90’s indie-rock mentality – their modern take on Americana. Throughout those three albums, they managed to strike a balance long enough to distract you from the sharp distinctions between the two eras, and therein lies the biggest distinction between then and now.
On Mirage Rock, Band of Horses those two very distinct sounds rarely mix, and the listener is forced to choose between the two. On one hand you have the side of the band that appeals to those whose 8-tracks of Bread’s “Baby I’m a Want You”, or the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Uncle Charlie and his Dog Teddy” are getting a little worn and you’re looking for something fresh to take its place in the van. On the other you’ve got the crowd whose tape of Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain or Built to Spill’s Keep It Like a Secret is stuck in the dashboard of their Econoline.
Glyn Johns, who has worked on classics by The Band, Rolling Stones and The Eagles, was brought in as producer on Mirage Rock and his influence shows. Johns not only helps Band of Horses drop down the cavernous reverb that drowned some of the previous albums, but gives the recordings an overall acoustic tone of a live performance. That having been said, the relative thinness of the production on tracks like “Knock Knock,” “How To Live,” and “Slow Cruel Hands Of Time” may leave fans of Band of Horse’s usual “wall of sound” a bit disappointed, it does help put more attention on the individual skills of each of the group’s members. Just as in the past, Ben Bridwell’s vocals really shine on all of the tracks and tracks “Shut-In Tourist”, “Everything’s Gonna Be Undone”, and “Long Vowels” fully embrace a CSNY vocal style that highlights the rest of the bands vocal abilities in a way that feels both natural and familiar.
So it’s when the band switches up from the 70’s to 90’s that the album feels the most jarring. Songs like “A Little Biblical” and the second half of “Dumpster World” noticeably lack character when dropped into a palette dominated by country Americana. And while “Feud” is a great rock tune in isolation, it seems to lose its edge when bookended by two of the slowest country songs on the album.
Recent albums by the Beachwood Sparks and The Wooden Sky have both made the case for going all in if you’re shooting for that “Ventura Highway” sound. On Mirage Rock Band of Horses divided their attentions and the result as a whole winds up sounding disjointed rather than the mellow masterpiece they were clearly aiming for. That minor miscalculation though feels like it could potentially be a huge step forward for a band that has worked hard to make sure that when you hear a Band of Horses song, you know it’s them. Achieving that level of recognition is also not an easy feat, and the fact that as a band they are still willing to experiment with their sound and push it further makes Mirage Rock, even despite its missteps, worthy of a check in on the band and a more than worthy addition to Band of Horses body of work.