WHY ARE YOU OK by Band of Horses
Genre: Indie Rock
Favorite Tracks: “In A Drawer,” “Hag,” “Barrel House,” “Casual Party,” “Lying Under Oak”
It’s been 10 years since Band of Horses released EVERYTHING ALL THE TIME, an indispensable work of the aughts’ indie rock scene, but save for the continued presence of frontman and primary songwriter Ben Bridwell, this is an entirely different group from the one that played on that album.
The current lineup is now three albums in, and though they haven’t been able to catch up to their own past, this is their strongest effort yet to do so. This album is not without some new blood, as Grandaddy frontman Jason Lytle serves as producer, and his influence on Bridwell and the group is a positive one, as his presence seems to have resulted in better musical arrangements and a removal from the toothless alt-country trappings of MIRAGE ROCK. On WHY ARE YOU OK, Bridwell and the rest of the group exude a lot more confidence than they have in the past, and though this isn’t the first time they’ve tried to advance their sound, this is the first time that it sounds like they’ve done so without covering their eyes and holding their breath.
Album opener “Dull Times/The Moon” sees Band of Horses exploring some unfamiliar territory with a somewhat spacey introduction that turns into an uptempo rock song around five minutes in. It’s not a sound that they stick with throughout the record, so it’s not a perfect fit to open the album, but it does at least send the message that the group is putting itself outside of the southern-indie-pop trappings of its last two works. “Solemn Oath” starts off on a tenuous note, with the now-tired folk pop stomp/clap and solo guitar combo, but turns into an “Islands on the Coast”-esque tune that comes together surprisingly well in the end.
The best work on the album is done in the three song sequence of “Hag,” “Casual Party,” and “In A Drawer.” “Hag” is a slow-burning breakup song anchored on a simple two-note synth melody that is more than a little reminiscent of INFINITE ARMS opening track “Factory,” at least in the beginning. The sum of this tune is far greater than the parts, however, and unlike “Factory,” “Hag” is much more tasteful in its musical embellishments, allowing Bridwell’s refrain of “Are we really in love?/Completely in love?” to carry the song, and the results are a song that is simultaneously nuanced, intimate, and close to the grand scale of their early work.
“Casual Party,” a tale of the horrors of small talk with new neighbors, recycles a winning Band of Horses formula used on EVERYTHING ALL THE TIME’s “Weed Party” by delivering a melodic, major-key uptempo rock song that replaces the reckless abandon of “Weed Party” with some seriously palpable underlying anxiety and frustration. Finally, “In A Drawer,” whose simple lyrics deal with themes of nostalgia and uncertainty in the future, is a truly unique entry into the Band of Horses canon with low-key verses that feature New Order-esque guitars and a fuzzy synth pad that devolves into a rollicking chorus featuring Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis on vocals. It’s probably the surest sign of artistic evolution on the band’s part on this record and is one of the best individual releases of their career.
Unfortunately, the second half of the album just doesn’t work as well, and there’s a lot of disposable material that is closer in quality and style to MIRAGE ROCK. “Lying Under Oak,” whose narrator offers an unnamed friend a place to stay, is one of the strongest songs lyrically on the record. “Barrel House” has some emotional heft on the back of its gentle but soulful melody alone, and “Country Teen” offers us a glimpse into an alternate dimension where guitarist Tyler Ramsey was the group’s frontman. But the album drives itself off a cliff here, partially because of a reduction in quality, but mostly because the songs feel undercooked or need something else added to them to bring out their natural flavors.
Even if it’s far from perfect, this is Band of Horses’ best release since CEASE TO BEGIN, and it’s undoubtedly the first time since then that the band has found themselves sounding comfortable in their own skin. Band of Horses excels here at making small, seemingly inconsequential things into things much more meaningful, and with a little tightening and their newfound confidence, they could do exactly that for their career. WHY ARE YOU OK, which frustrates by being a pretty good, but not great, album, should restore hope in fans of the band that Bridwell has another great work in him somewhere.