Released five years apart, “Is There a Ghost” and “Knock Knock” are remarkably similar songs, energetic opening numbers that are as catchy as they are fulfilling. And yet, Band of Horses, the Charleston, S.C.-based outfit that created them, are a very different band than they were in 2007. Keying on leader Ben Bridwell — the band’s only constant during its nine-year run — they became international stars based on a very specific set of strengths, a skill set they now seem uninterested in exploiting.
“Ben’s an artist, and he likes to keep challenging himself and doing new stuff,” offers bassist Bill Reynolds, speaking to 2010’s Infinite Arms and 2012’s Mirage Rock, recent records that drift from the band’s early sound — lush, psych-leaning folk-rock where the only element more enormous than reverb was catharsis. “I think he was just trying to push himself. If you keep doing the same thing, then people will get mad at you for doing the same thing. He just wanted to push it.”
“Is There a Ghost” opens Band of Horses’ 2007 sophomore platter, Cease to Begin, a savvy and emotionally rich album that built the instant acclaim of 2006’s Everything All the Time into breakout success and a deal with Columbia Records. “Is There a Ghost” finds the group’s early appeal distilled to its most essential elements. It’s a chorus elongated into three uncommonly powerful minutes. “I could sleep / When I lived alone,” Bridwell sings, his passionate Southern coo simmering through subtle reverb, “Is there a ghost in my house?” Huge walls of shimmering guitars build, matched by bass and drums that chug with aggressive persistence, the sonic embodiment of a thought you just can’t shake. All told, it’s a perfectly soaring setup for an album defined by its unrelenting urgency and powerful sense of feeling.
“Knock Knock,” which leads off Mirage Rock, is the group’s best song since Cease. Like “Is There Ghost,” it’s really just a hook stretched out four minutes, but what a hook it is. The verses, which ramble along with the same gait as the chorus, ride nervy, reverb-rich guitar jangles and drums readymade to lead festival handclaps.
In the chorus, everything simply ramps up, distortion made richer, rhythms made stronger. “Knocking on the doorway/ Something’s coming your way,” Bridwell cries, his croon as impassioned as it ever has been, “Everything I want/ Everything I need.”
It’s the other side of “Ghost”’s coin, a surge of positive momentum that’s incredibly hard to resist. Unfortunately, “Knock Knock” is not an apt predictor of the album that follows. The rest of Mirage Rock sinks into a quagmire of cliched phrasing, half-hearted sentimentality, and songs that are content to recreate the band’s reliably pretty sound without reviving their early energy.
“Sequencing this record was the hardest thing,” Reynolds admits. “When Glyn [Johns, the album’s producer] finally sequenced it, it made sense to me. This one had lots of peaks and valleys, so we didn’t really know what to put first.”
But sequencing isn’t Band of Horses’ problem. Bridwell has proven incredibly skilled at one particular mood, rendering it more powerfully than pretty much any other musician working today. And while his willingness to follow his wandering artistic inspirations is admittedly brave given the pressure of his major label contract, he hasn’t landed on anything that resonates.
On Mirage Rock, Reynolds says the band swayed to the preferences of Johns, a recording legend who has worked with The Who, The Rolling Stones and The Eagles among others. The Horses clearly had these hallmarks in mind during the album’s creation, but the sounds feel limp in their hands. “Slow Cruel Hands of Time” opts for calm acoustic strums, laid-back electric licks, and comfortably rough harmonies. It’s as easy to fall into as any of The Eagles’ hits, but it’s weak-willed, lacking the insistence that allowed those ‘70s stars to turn average melodies into chart-topping hits. “Electric Music” tries for the backwoods blues perfected by the Stones, but it’s done by the numbers, too concerned with getting things right to capture any of the icons’ ramshackle grit.
“We made songs that we thought would perk Glyn up,” Reynolds says. “If we came with a really hard-hitting song, we knew that it wasn’t going to be something that he wanted to mess with too long.”
It’s possible that Mirage Rock’s problems stem from an ill-suited producer. And perhaps the hollow enormity of Infinite Arms was a poor reaction to new expectations. “Knock Knock” proves that Band of Horses haven’t lost their touch. They’re just not taking advantage of it.
who: Band of Horses with Future Birds
where: U.S. Cellular Center
when: Wednesday, May 1 (8 p.m. $28) uscellularcenterasheville.com