Why Are You OK, 2016, Interscope
I’m admittedly a sucker for Band of Horses. I say this while also saying that they haven’t released a single record I can listen to from beginning to end.
The closest, 2007’s Cease to Begin, is about 70% enjoyable, with a few cuts that were completely redeemed in 2013’s sublime Acoustic at the Ryman bootleg. On the other hand, Infinite Arms, their 2010 LP on Columbia, was easily one of the worst record buys I’ve made in my adult life. Even after a trusted, close friend insisted it rewards repeated listens, I couldn’t do it.
I discovered Acoustic at the Ryman this past fall and it rekindled my love for Ben Bridwell and company, so much so that I decided to give their recent records more consideration. And here we are, with what might be the most mixed feelings I’ve ever had about a record.
First, let’s get the obvious out of the way. Several reviews out there have noted how much of an artistic risk or expansion OK is, and they’re right. After some time in Columbia’s wilderness, Bridwell’s new overlords were Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle and Rick Rubin. The latter makes sense; Rubin has a proven resume of catapulting, reinventing, rejuvenating or otherwise resurrecting artists and acts.
When you put OK on, you think you’re listening to the former. To me, that’s a problem. Lytle’s aesthetic is all over this record, and heavily so. Grandaddy, a cynical, coarse alt-synth social commentary on modern life often got so wrapped up in its own distorted, sardonic vision of .com America that it parodied itself. Band of Horses is nothing if not a straight-ahead indie rock with a twist of Dixie thrown in for good measure. The result here is what amounts to a split LP that leaves the listener wondering if the sum of Bridwell’s career is merely that he’s an avatar through which his producers have their way.
The opening track, ‘Dull Times/The Moon’, is a droning seven-minute fraternal, conjoined twins track that encapsulates everything that is to come: the front end is an ephemeral electronic lull against hollow, strummed guitars; the back a country-fried genuine rock and roll cut. How the two decided to become one are a complete mystery.
‘Solemn Oath’ is a bright, jangly sound paired against what might or might not be the existential tension between the freedom of bachelordom and a contemplation of what vows like ‘for better or worse’ can mean. A song with such catchy hooks (Bridwell and company ought not be burdened with such dark and cynical lyrics. Such is Lytle’s hallmark, subtle melody with decidedly unsubtle wordplay.
‘Hag’ is what I consider to be the first real Band of Horses cut on the record. Even with the synth work acting as a foundation, the song is an aching, four-minute ballad to love and doubt that would/could/should be handed off to an artist like Damian Jurado to make my eyes drown my face in tears. The live cut performed at WFUV and posted to YouTube should be considered definitive, but the album cut is respectable and carries its own weight.
I publicly decided that, hereafter, ‘Casual Party’ is my anthem for every social engagement I will ever attend. A taut, playful and perfectly crafted pop-rock song, it represents the best of the Lytle-Bridwell collaboration, lyrics that don’t act as a wet blanket against arrangement that invites the listener into the song. Then there’s the video. Ummm, yeah. The video. Video notwithstanding, ‘Casual Party’ mercilessly assaults cocktail hour conversation, and I can’t love it enough.
Then, GOOD GOD ALMIGHTY! THAT’S J MASCIS’ MUSIC! Lytle strikes again with a synth beat and the one song on the record that truly rewards repeated listens. And J Mascis inexplicably sings the chorus. It took probably 27 listens before I realized I really liked ‘In a Drawer’.
After a halftime interlude that might as well be a throwaway cut from Grandaddy’s Sumday, we approach the first really unapproachable song on the record. There’s nothing inherently wrong with ‘Lying Under Oak’, beyond that it just doesn’t connect with the listener.
We then get south of the Mason-Dixon with ‘Throw My Mess’, a rollicking fun three-minute cut that is way more enjoyable than it ever should be on a record where it absolutely doesn’t belong. I refer you back to the WFUV session for the definitive version of ‘Whatever, Wherever’, a gorgeous, contemplative little tune devoted to devotion that plays to the band’s strengths while Lytle’s light hand at the controls makes for a solid contribution to the record.
‘Country Teen’ takes us back south, with a little countrypolitan thrown in for good measure; a track that could probably be dropped on a Nash-Vegas FM radio station right now and be in heavy rotation by Tuesday. Another tune that has no business being on this record, but shines in the homestretch. Everything ‘Country Teen’ is, ‘Barrel House’ isn’t: the penultimate track just rings hollow and seems like a cut that might or might not have been on cusp of B-side status.
Then there’s the record’s pensive final cut, ‘Even Still’. Band of Horses has done this before, sneaking a gem in at the end of the record (‘St. Augustine’, on their 2006 debut record.) Rich with religious imagery–on its face unfazed by its confrontation with the divine, yet for those with ears to hear, brutally soul-baring; ‘let this cup pass from me’ comes to mind–and evocative vignettes of the unflinching upshots of failing companionship, ‘Even Still’ is a devastating closing cut that embraces the Lytle-Bridwell hybrid but hints that this might be where the group heads from here. This is not an avatar, as odd as that seems. While it would be just as at home on a Grandaddy record as it is here, it’s decidedly Bridwell’s work.
With so many tracks that either don’t work, are better elsewhere or otherwise seem like an impersonation of the guy in the booth, it’s hard to say I like Why Are You OK. I like songs on it, but I can’t say I like it. I also can’t say I can put it down and put it away like other Band of Horses records. The artistic risks for the most part don’t work: the best songs are the ones where it’s clearly Bridwell at the helm. A tantalizing, frustrating release, with moments that shine and others where reach exceeds grasp.
That said, if ‘Even Still’ is a bellwether for future releases, then OK acts as a dark night of the soul for Band of Horses, with hope for future output to take on more artistic, expansive themes and rescuing them from potential middle-aged mediocrity. Also knowing that the boys are adept at reworking these tunes–and earlier cuts, as well–to be more at home in their Carolina neck of the woods gives one reason to believe that there is an emerging artistic versatility that will only benefit the group moving forward.