With the exception of the drifting, string-drenched opener, “Factory,” which sees Ben Bridwell and his Band of Horses galloping headlong into the Flaming Lips comparisons that have dogged them since their 2006 debut, Infinite Arms is a surprisingly understated affair. Despite adding a second full-time guitar player and a keyboardist to their lineup, and jumping from indie mainstay Sub Pop to the major-league Columbia, the band sounds smaller and more grounded than ever. Sure, they sprawl out in festival-ready form when they close the set with “Bartles + James,” but the material here does, to an even greater extent than 2007’s Cease to Begin, incline toward the spare and unfussy. Fans who were disappointed with Band of Horses’s last album because it lacked anything as momentous as “The Funeral” or “The Great Salt Lake” shouldn’t come to Infinite Arms hoping for a return to form.
That will surely be bad news to some, but I say props to Band of Horses for realizing that they can’t be all things to all people. The fivesome has clearly opted for boogie over bombast, country and roots music over college rock and soaring indie anthems, and I’m in no way suggesting that this decision dooms Infinite Arms to be a less interesting album than its two predecessors. “Laredo,” with its crunchy verse riff and terse Neil Young-styled solo, challenges the Hold Steady’s monopoly on transcendental bar rock with bluesy gusto; later, the looping exchanges between Bridwell, his backing vocalists, and Ryan Monroe’s bouncy keys drive “Dilly” along like a Southern-fried Shins single. And the band has yet to record as elegant or straightforward a country hymn as “Evening Kitchen,” proof that the guys can go for the heart without making the slightest concession to indie melodrama.
But whatever musical traditions they chose to mine for inspiration, Band of Horses could surely have turned out an album less static than this. Aside from “Northwest Apartment,” there’s not a song on Infinite Arms that dares to exceed midtempo, though there are plenty of slower songs. And more than half the songs in the middle stretch (“Way Back Home,” “Infinite Arms,” “Older,” and “Trudy”) introduce a potentially interesting riff or sonic texture only to repeat it with little or no elaboration for the entirety of the song. The same problem extends to much of Bridwell’s lyrics, which tend to be simple, confessional mantras of the “Where’d you go/I don’t know” variety.
It’s hard to say whether this outcome should be blamed on a sense of complacency or its opposite; the directness with which Band of Horses approaches their atmospheric Americana, refusing to detract with showy diversions even if it means working harder to hold their audience’s attention, does entail its own sort of ambition. At the very least, Bridwell and his compatriots would have to be quite confident in the simple strengths of their songs. But whether you take Infinite Arms to be the sound of a band gambling or betting safe, it’s hard to deny that they haven’t brought their best hand to the table.