If you really want to laugh some time at how seriously music critics take themselves, I recommend you take a look at the evolution of Pitchfork’s opinion of Band of Horses. What was first breathless praise slowly but surely evolved into near utter contempt. Even though it was the work of multiple reviewers, each had similarly high hopes derived from the band’s early work. At a certain point, you have to ask, “Why was this case?”
Though it may seem like I’m attempting to bury Band of Horses, this actually is not the case. I am just offering an argument for not having rapturous expectations in the first place. I remember hearing “The Funeral” when it first came out, and my first instinct was to say “Hey, this is a pretty good Shins song.” You would think that considering that they were label mates on Sub Pop that this would be among the first comparisons to be made, but instead I saw a lot written about My Morning Jacket (not really, but I can see some similarities at least from a vocal perspective between Ben Bridwell and Jim James) and Neil Young (no, not at all). In fact, I had first tried to pay attention to Band of Horses because of the MMJ comparisons, and when I didn’t hear the similarities, I decided to ignore them, despite the heavy praise of the album. It wasn’t until I saw BoH open up for Dinosaur Jr. that I decided to reconsider my stance, based both on the music and Bridwell’s beard, which was at the time at a level of Martsch-ian proportions.
I actually first became excited for the band when I heard the lead single for Cease to Begin, the seemingly upbeat “Is There A Ghost”. And then when I saw that they had a song called “Detlef Schrempf”, they had all the hooks they needed for me. If you reference one of my favorite third-banana NBA players from the 90’s (and a beloved Blazer in his short time here), you definitely have my attention. It was at this point that I decided that I would start following this band and at least keep track when they released a new album.
Now I will agree with the critical consensus about the decline in relative quality over the course of BoH’s career. Infinite Arms had a couple of catchy songs, but I never played it as much as Cease to Begin or Everything All The Time. And Mirage Rock left such a minimal impression on me that I recently checked to make sure that I actually own the album. The difference is, I don’t see the decline in the grandiose tragic terms as some of those other critics. “Where’s the artistic growth?” they would ask; I respond, “Why did you expect any to begin with?” There wasn’t anything necessarily uniquely great about the group from the beginning. They merely developed an interesting sound, wrote a few good songs, and continue to do pretty much the same thing for each album.
This leads me to their latest release, Acoustic at the Ryman. The review for this album in particular is even more hilarious considering the level of bile and invective. It’s at this point you have to step back and ask, “What is a live acoustic album for?” It pretty much just serves the purpose of providing a mix tape of previous albums, a pseudo-Greatest Hits collection for neophytes, with a slightly different take on these songs, something that serves the fans. There’s no need to go into long digressions about the significance of the venue and analyzing the existential dilemma of a moderately successful indie rock group. Accept it for what it is, and move on.
So, considering those parameters, is the album a success? If you’ve never heard Band of Horses, pick the album up and you will get a good idea of their sound. For fans of the band, sure, why not–the arrangements are different enough that they’re enjoyable to compare to what you know. It’s not sacrilege to hear “The Funeral” with a piano. Save the theatrics for someone else.