Hoarse Whisperers

We're not really horses, but we really are a band: Ben Bridwell, one half of Band of Horses
Courtesy of Sub Pop

Band of Horses
Everything All the Time
Sub Pop

Band of Horses' Everything All the Time, the Seattle duo's full-length debut, traces its roots to the early-R.E.M. anti-narrative school—where lyrics have more to do with sound and image than with making sense, and scenes blur like landscapes glimpsed through windshield frost. Singer/guitarist Ben Bridwell demonstrates this tack, and speaks to its purposes, in the opening lines of "Funeral": "I'm coming up only to hold you under/And coming up only to show you wrong/And to know you is hard/We wonder..."

Bridwell and guitarist Mat Brooke had played in Carissa's Wierd, Seattle homeprides who never expanded their sphere much beyond the Pacific Northwest before ending their eight-year run in 2003. A short time after that, before going back to his own drawing board, Bridwell introduced the Sub Pop gang to local songwriter Sam Beam, kick-starting his friend's musical acclaim as Iron + Wine. When Beam later picked the newly formed Horses as tour openers, it was probably more than simple quid pro quo (even though with their similarly Appalachian beards, the two could be brothers.) While Everything comprises plenty of effusive pop/rock tunes à la the Arcade Fire (especially "Funeral," perversely enough), "St. Augustine," the album's acoustic closer, mirrors Iron + Wine in its stark, melancholic beauty ("I'm dreaming of car wrecks and thunderstorms bright/Let's bury ourselves and go haunt someone tonight.")

But the album's apex is "Wicked Gil," with its silvery guitars and an aching rhythm that pushes forward with a burdened momentum, throbbing like a fresh bruise. (And tellingly situated as the second track: Jungian rokk theory holds that the first song—here titled "The First Song"—is how the band wishes to be seen; the one that follows it is how the band sees itself.) Bridwell's lyrics and delivery—he kind of sounds like Jon Anderson of Yes—trace a wide arc, moving from Stipe-like abstraction ("Early told a lie/Afraid to be blind") to abjectness, and from there to galvanic passion. It's the latter that binds everything, where he dangles momentarily from the sharpest melodic hook on the album: "I'm here for a while/Shut off to the world.../I'm..."—the last word descending in four melismatic notes like a falling leaf—"...yours."

Bridwell's a Southerner, a former pothead and high school dropout from a small burg in North Carolina (he's distantly related to novelist Harper Lee); there's a sense of rural languor to his electric rock songs. Beyond the churning amps a sort of quietude prevails, hinted at in the leafy flora of the album art and by Christopher Wilson's lonesome photographs, printed on loose cards in a triptych insert depicting trees, which, when folded, causes the branches to meet their own reflections. The images are static and empty, bereft of people except for one of Wilson's photos in which half an arm waves at a passing airplane.

The static, desolate images reflect the music, which is about people who aren't there: They're coming or someone is coming to them, they're gone or lost, or dead somehow. Bridwell's eroded verse is one of the many dialects of talking to one's self, and well-suited to songs missing their subjects ("I Go to the Barn Because I Like the") or their names ("The First Song"). Band of Horses find intimacy in dissociation, like overhearing the low, quiescent voice of someone singing to no one.

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