band of horses

The most hotly anticipated album of the year, for me anyway, is officially dropping next week: Infinite Arms is the looong-awaited follow-up to Band of Horses’ 2007 Cease to Begin, one of the best albums of the last decade. I’m happy to report that it is positively transcendent.

Much has changed since the last album. The line-up of the band, which churned constantly until 2007-08, stabilized into a core five-piece that toured relentlessly and got sh*t-tight. The band left its indie label, Sub Pop. Lead singer/songwriter Ben Bridwell financed the new album himself (flirtations with bankruptcy help explain its extended gestation) and the band did most of its own producing, recording in remote Northern Minnesota and the Carolinas. With album in hand, they struck a sweetheart deal with Columbia.

The result could easily have been wanky and self-indulgent. The band had always had a weakness for the slow, grand, and epic, and as many a jam band can attest, sometimes epic needs an editor. Happily, however, total creative freedom seems to have sent the band in the opposite direction: the new album is punchier and more focused than the last. (Only one song exceeds the five-minute mark!) There are more songwriters — everyone in the band has a song credit — but the stylistic variety manages to weave itself into an organic, cohesive album. The band sounds like a band, locked together, getting to the point, thumping along on a low-end that occasionally sounds, dare I say it of such a beard-y crew, downright funky.

BoH’s first two albums drew comparisons to My Morning Jacket, another ambitious americana-tinged outfit whose angel-voiced singer hid behind an echo- and reverb-filled wall of sound. MMJ and BoH have both evolved away from extendo-jams and toward tight, occasionally poppy indie boogie, but where MMJ’s Jim James is still hiding behind inscrutable lyrics and prankster roleplaying, Infinite Arms finds Ben Bridwell exposed. Stripped of otherworldly studio effects, his voice is immediate and sweet, with a kind of quavery vulnerability as indelible as it is unique. The haunting vocal harmonies haven’t gone anywhere, but the overall vibe on the record is happy, even exultant. It’s a mood you don’t often find in the indie world.

If these guys come near you on tour, catch them. You will thank me. This song, the first single, is one of the most rockin’ on the album: “Compliments.”