The opening guitar notes and soft cymbal splash creep up on you subtly, before Ben Bridwell's potent, reedy voice alights "Is There a Ghost" with its recurring pronouncement, "I could sleep, I could sleeee-eep." But hearing it, you're awoken from the daze of your days. You're drawn to it, enraptured by the power and beauty of it, and though there's honestly not much to the piece (the only other words being, "When I lived alone/Is there a ghost in my house?"), by the time the gears kick in and it transforms into this magnificent, irresistibly catchy rock song, you're hooked, and it seems like it ends all too quickly.
Yet the remainder of Band of Horses' second Sub Pop album, Cease to Begin, produced with skilled intuition by Phil Ek (Built to Spill, Modest Mouse, the Shins) renders that opening salvo almost inconsequential. Chugging, rugged rockers like "Ode to LRC" (inspired by the stories told in the logbook of an inn Bridwell visited on the Washington coast) and "Cigarettes, Wedding Bands" leave smoke rings of mystery in their barreling wake, while more tender diversions such as "No One's Gonna Love You," "Detlef Schrempf," and country ballad "Window Blues" sparkle with dewy splendor and sincere confession.
The band's cosmic Southern rock sound, Bridwell's voice and use of reverb, even their beards have earned Band of Horses endless comparisons to My Morning Jacket, a contrast which is valid, though Bridwell is sick of hearing about it. Here's a new twist: "Marry Song," deny it though Bridwell may, is a dead ringer for a classic Eagles song! Despite that, it's a dandy little harmonious number, and not just in some ironic yacht rock way.
Birthed in Seattle after the demise of Bridwell's previous band, Carissa's Wierd (misspelling intentional), Band of Horses went through a near-total reorganization following the release of their debut, Everything All the Time, in the spring of 2006. The original rhythm section was replaced by drummer Creighton Barrett, Bridwell's best friend from South Carolina, and bassist Rob Hampton of Louisville, Ky., who Bridwell describes as enjoying "short walks on the beach and brightly colored lunches." Perhaps most significantly, Bridwell's longtime friend Mat Brooke — BOH guitarist and former member of Carissa's Wierd who had moved to Seattle with Bridwell in 1996 — left the band in the summer of '06, just before they were to play on Letterman. Bridwell still avoids discussing the bad blood.
In the wake of such upheavals, Bridwell — who was born in Irmo, home of the Okra Strut — decided that a return to warmer, brighter, drier, and decidedly quieter Carolina might help temper the chaos.
"The bad ghosts [in Seattle] actually make it hard to leave. It's so wonderfully miserable that it draws you in and holds tight. It still has its grip on me sometimes," Bridwell says. "Thing is, life finally seemed a bit too short to piss away in a pitiful state of mind. We wanted to see the sunshine and spend time with our families, plain and simple." These days he lives down the street from his dad in Mt. Pleasant.
It's impossible to pinpoint to what degree the return South affected the sound and songs of the by turns massively anthemic and chillingly transcendent Cease to Begin, but Bridwell is quick to acknowledge the impact of the lineup change. The Horses have added three additional musicians to the mix — bassist Bill Reynolds, multi-instrumentalist Tyler Ramsey, and keyboardist Ryan Monroe. "The newer guys had a great influence on this record," he says. "It was really night and day compared to the last one, as far as being a much more positive environment."
At this time a year ago, we were all aflutter over The Shins' third album, with its advance internet leaks, impressive first-week sales, inroads on commercial radio, and impassioned debate in the blogosphere as to whether Wincing the Night Away lived up to the promise of the Portland-based band's first two albums. Today, Band of Horses is the Sub Pop act du jour which is inspiring eager accolades and crossover buzz. Cease to Begin made many a critic's year-end "best of" list, and they've been touring like maniacs and have even more roadwork scheduled for next year.
Band of Horses kick off their early '08 tour with a "hometown" gig at Charleston's Music Farm on Jan. 20.