On Band Of Horses’ first album, the band seemed like the inheritor of certain qualities of the coastal South—humid, decaying, and full of Spanish moss and rusty beer cans that turn up in the surf. On Mirage Rock, though, the South Carolina quintet takes a page out of The Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street playbook and heads to L.A.’s Sunset Sound studios, enlisting 70-year-old British producer Glyn Johns. But by blending mellow ’70s SoCal folk, heavy ’90s alt-rock, and hints of blander contemporary Southern rock leads to mixed results.
Band Of Horses’ first two albums—2006’s Everything All The Time and 2007’s Cease To Begin—distilled the best qualities of Southern rock without explicitly referencing its influences. Probably not sure where to take it from there, frontman Ben Bridwell added versatile members Tyler Ramsey, Ryan Monroe, and Bill Reynolds to the band and recorded 2010’s Infinite Arms, which set the formula for Mirage Rock. Notable on both albums is Ramsey’s ascension as a co-writer, guitarist, and harmonist. The North Carolina-based Ramsey has an experimental folk background that’s more Appalachia than Seattle. On the Laurel Canyon psychedelic nugget “Shut-In Tourist,” it’s Ramsey’s hypnotic, looping guitar that stands out, while “Everything’s Gonna Be Undone” is a striking Ramsey original, as was Infinite Arms’ “Evening Kitchen.”
If Mirage Rock songs like “Knock Knock” and “How To Live” build on the Band Of Horses brand without adding much, “Slow Cruel Hands Of Time” foregoes the heavy guitars for an acoustic arrangement and picks up on the nostalgia of the band’s earlier records. Here, Bridwell visits an old haunt, sees some people he remembers from high school, dodges the police, and slowly turns back “into a child.”
Bridwell himself has made much about the two eras of the band—its early Sub Pop days and its two albums under the current lineup. On Mirage Rock’s best songs, the band feels like a sum of those parts. On its worst—like lyrical head-scratcher “Dumpster World”—it sounds like an ace band that can’t salvage the mediocre material.