This past summer, I stood watching a packed Showbox gawk in adoration at Band of Horses, the erstwhile Seattle rock band that now calls South Carolina home. The band lit into its opening song, "Is There a Ghost," with frontman Ben Bridwell yelping lyrics confidently, the Johnny Marr–ish guitars building and pulsing before busting out with Built to Spill–style open-air jamming. It was a new song, which Bridwell said would be the first song on their new record. I leaned over to my wife and said, "Well, everyone's gonna love it."
I was being pessimistic. All those drunken oafs I have to suffer at Built to Spill and Modest Mouse shows had found their way into this Band of Horses show. They were taking video with their cell phones and making comments to their friends about the "weed parties" they'd had before the show. I thought back on the early Horses (they would later add "Band of" to their moniker) shows, like in November of 2005 at the Crocodile, with eight people in the room. It seemed the only people there, besides soundman Phil Ek, were a handful of Capitol Hillbillies, friends of Bridwell and former guitarist Mat Brooke. Bassist Rob Hampton and drummer Creighton Barrett weren't even in the band yet.
But that night, I knew Horses were far and above the best band in Seattle at the time. Bridwell was all jittery amphetamine energy, as usual. Conversely, Brooke stood with his head down, looking every bit like a stoic gold-rush prospector.
Bridwell was unsure of himself, running his vocals through a tunnel of reverb as a cover-up. He mumbled certain words, and when the songs called for him to be expressive, it seemed like it took every bit of energy he had to muster the requisite emotion. Still, Horses were onto a whole new kind of Americana, one that was informed by Pacific Northwest indie rock as well as Southern, fist-pumping party anthems.
But more important, there was urgency. When few young Seattle bands had the balls to rock the fuck out, here were Horses, making music as if it was absolutely vital to their existence. What a goddamn relief. Pair that with the fact that Sub Pop's general manager, Megan Jasper, was quick to sign them to a contract, and there was no question they were our Next Big Thing.
And so, there we were, shoulder-to-sweaty-shoulder in the Showbox a year and a half later, watching a band that was one of the bigger indie-rock successes in the country. Everyone was in love with them. When they finally played their signature song, "The Funeral" (arguably one of the best songs to come out of this region since Modest Mouse's "Trailer Trash"), girls squealed and guys sang along, all out of tune, trying to be heard above the band. Cell phones were drawn, flashes went off, and pictures were snapped. But something was missing from the Band of Horses this city originally loved.
Next Tuesday, Band of Horses will release their second album, Cease to Begin. It's the follow-up to Everything All the Time, the debut that brought them all their success. Obviously, the most noticeable thing missing from this record is Brooke. (He's since formed his own band, Grand Archives.) But he's been gone for quite a while now, and I don't attribute what's wrong with this album to his absence.
The band sounds bold, confident, and powerful on a few tracks, the result of what a road hog the group has been since Everything's release. But Cease sounds thin and less urgent than its predecessor. The album gets off to a running start with two strong numbers, "Is There a Ghost" and "Ode to LRC." The latter rocks like "Great Salt Lake" with Bridwell's loose-limbed electric strumming, and contains some of his most vivid imagery yet. In the song's romantic bridge, he sings, "The town's so small/How could anybody not/Look you in the eye/Or wave as you drive by," which he counters with: "The world's such a wonderful place."
But the first misstep occurs on "No One's Gonna Love You," a song that's been a live staple since Brooke was in the band. When I first heard it at Neumo's in March of '06, it was one of the most beautiful songs I'd ever heard. I couldn't even try to describe its perfection to people. It takes real honesty to pull off a chorus like "No one's gonna love you more than I do." In the hands of Bridwell, it wasn't cheesy in the least. But perhaps it was the attempt to snare such raw beauty in the studio, because the version here is lukewarm and made for television by comparison.
Same goes for "Detlef Schrempf" (named for the beloved former UW and Sonics forward), a dreamy Americana number on which Bridwell accentuates certain vocal inflections a little too much. He does the same on back-porch knee-slapper "The General Specific," the album's fun song, in the way "Weed Party" was for Everything. But aside from a couple of Built to Spill–ish rockers and a 50-second guitar noodle, the album flickers out on mostly sluggish country songs.
What originally endeared me to Band of Horses was the urgency in Bridwell's overall delivery. It was like Jasper once told me, "This is his one shot to do something great." With Everything, he definitely did something great; he proved himself.
But now that that's been done, where does one go next? I still maintain that Band of Horses are one of the best bands in the country—I just chalk Cease up to a sophomore slump. Like so many of our best songwriters, Bridwell knows that this is what he's best at. Maybe, after his first brush with success, he just needs to be reminded.