During Band of Horses’ tenure at Sub Pop, frontman Ben Bridwell incorporated the occasional Americana flourish into the band’s lush indie rock, but the ratio of those two styles has completely reversed since the band made the move to a major label. Mirage Rock, Band of Horses’ second album for Columbia, pushes the band even further in the direction of roots-rock acts like Mumford & Sons and the Avett Brothers, with only a few remnants of the dreamy, outsized arrangements from early singles “The Funeral” and “The Great Salt Lake.” Fortunately, Bridwell and producer Glyn Johns avoid many of the staid trappings that have made so many Americana acts sound ungodly dull.
That Johns’s production scans as country-inspired speaks to the pervasive influence of the late-‘70s SoCal scene—of the Eagles, in particular—on modern country music, since that style informs every track on Mirage Rock. The rambling, loose-limbed arrangement on “How to Live” is an obvious nod to the Flying Burrito Brothers, while the low-key, acoustic production and multi-tracked harmony vocals on “Slow Cruel Hands of Time” recall One of These Nights-era Eagles. In terms of an aesthetic, these aren’t difficult or obscure influences for an act to emulate, as recent albums from artists as diverse as Grizzly Bear and Little Big Town can attest.
As the principal songwriter for Band of Horses, it’s to Bridwell’s credit, then, that the songs are strong enough that the familiarity and conservatism of the album’s style isn’t a liability. Lead single “Knock Knock” boasts a strong hook in its refrain and a a forward-driving arrangement, and standout tracks like the raucous “Feud” and “A Little Biblical,” with its wiseass narrative POV, keep the overall tone of the album lighthearted and frivolous. In terms of content, the album is fairly thin, to the extent that the more somber material, such as “Everything’s Gonna Be Undone” and “Heartbreak on the 101,” sounds somewhat strident, like rote exercises in “serious” country songwriting.
Still, even when Bridwell threatens to get a little too AAA and formal, Mirage Rock is never less than pleasant. The melodies are consistently robust and memorable, the construction of the songs is airtight, and the production walks a fine line between rootsy authenticity and slick, accessible studio polish. While Mirage Rock may want for a certain degree of ambition and creativity, Band of Horses have, at the very least, figured out how to bring Americana music to a mainstream rock audience without succumbing to the genre’s most dire, comatose conventions.