Band of Horses
Cease to Begin
ust like with their debut, Everything All the Time, slid within the cover of Band of Horses’ second album, Cease to Begin are a series of photographs. Bold, colorful shots that have a sense of chronology to them, as though they lay out some vagabond asphalt journey by the band. But, unlike the debut, there are no rocking chairs to be shot here; there are no homes to shoot them from. These are road images, captured splashes of red and coral blue from breaks in a trip. A vulture at full-wing against a cream yellow sky; a pink elephant, almost grotesquely bright afront the greenest of grass; and, most telling for the album behind it, a long wooden walk stretching to horizon-point in the bay. Most of them were taken in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, the band’s new home. Though much of Cease to Begin was recorded in their former city, Seattle, the album finds Band of Horses relocating to South Carolina to be closer to family, and these vibrant scenes mark their trail southward.
But more has happened than just this geographical slide. Band of Horses has lost some of that Band, including co-founder Mat Brooke, who left to pursue side projects. And yet, in the comfort of same-old category, Cease to Begin was produced again by Phil Ek, who helmed the band’s fabulous debut last year. Though the material has much of the same urban-Americana feel of Everything, Begin is for better or worse more determined with its tempos and its tones than their debut. The band’s sense of texturing seems at once trapped under old, leaden things and more spacious. Lead single “Is There a Ghost,” with its brisk leap into power-guitar territory, is as close to the headrushes of “Funeral” and “Weed Party” as it gets here until “Islands on the Coast,” which leaps out of your hand like a pet off its leash, its spiraling guitars and drums enmeshed in Ben Bridwell’s long, drawn out “oh”s. “Ode to LRC,” though, is a better way of getting at the album’s subtle beauties, as it opens with a dense crush of guitars before settling into a mournful synth part and Ben Bridwell’s patient, contemplative glance at the open spaces around him. It’s a good example of the way the band uses its own motion to guide them—accelerating and half-braking as needed to open new corners in songs that sometimes feel a little too used up by time. “No One’s Gonna Love You,” repeating on the opener’s ghost motifs, likewise manipulates those subtle shifts in mood and pace to highlight their sprawling melodies.
But there’s a weightlessness to some of this pop Americana that’s shy on the breathless dynamism that made their debut so distinctive. Americana is after all a nation-owned genre, and you don’t brand it so much as borrow it and try to give it back with a tiny new crack in it. Everything All the Time was a record of passages as much as songs. It had that ‘wait for it’ quality, where you held tight to moments perhaps more than whole tracks. Thus it took a while to reveal its charms. “Wicked Gil”’s whiplash stop amidst all that grinding, “Oh why / Do I / Even care / It’s nothing nowwwww.” “Part One”’s dwindling, brokeneck speech against the band’s bum twilight pitch, “I’ll love you always / Even when I say you distract me.” Those who’d written Band of Horses off as My Morning Jacketless had probably never given it quite enough attention; its largesse was almost incomprehensibly sly and patient, requiring a center-of-the-room experience before showing itself.
Some of Cease to Begin, though, has far more of the vague, background feel for which its predecessor was wrongly discarded, settling into faceless country tropes that can’t shake their own inert genrecizing. Without the band’s former flourish, the waltz of “Detlef Schrempf” is as empty of motion and pull as that very dude’s haircut was of subtlety, and the almost too-aptly titled “The General Specific”’s barn-dancin’ boogie never gets you off the bench. Closer “Window Blues” shuffles its feet on catatonic drums and meandering organ rolls, never summoning the kinetic energy of the band’s headier slow-burners, and ends the album in the stiffest of anticlimaxes. They’re too rigid in their costuming, too staid and stiff, despite the dancing calm in Bridwell’s voice or the band’s warm-bed harmonizing.
Still, Band of Horses is as sneaky with their anthems as your mama with that tooth fairy dough. You can write off some of Cease to Begin’s bland regionalisms as lacking in spice. But if, come midnight, “Marry Song”’s serpentine gospel finds home in your head, you better get up and read. Sleep ain’t about to get the leg-up on that organ and its simple, steady pulse to the time of your heart. Whether via the rural deadpatch of South Carolina or the clear-eyed blossom of Seattle, Band of Horses can still pen some itchingly addictive tunes. Cease to Begin may well be an album of transition, but these Carissa’s Wierdos have proven enough in just two years to mark them as a band to hear stadium-huge in small arenas and smaller speakers in whatever splotch of this vast humming place you call your own.