Band of Horses – Acoustic At The Ryman
Band Of Horses is set to release Acoustic At The Ryman February 11th. The 10-song CD (with an 11th iTunes bonus track) not only reveals a band with more depth than I expected, but is a CD I had no idea how much I needed to hear.
Truthfully, I’ve grown skeptical of almost everything these days. Social media alerts, opinion shows pretending to be news programs, you know the drill. As music lovers, we’ve unconsciously come to accept AutoTune and digital trickery in any release. When I get a new CD, I don’t know how much the band is playing and how much cut-and-paste went into the creation of what I’m hearing. Recordings have as much processing as a Twinkie has chemicals. And we’ve come to accept that as the norm.
When I think of Band of Horses, I’d have to say they’ve produced some of the best headphone records of the past decade. Layers of instrumentation set in stereo fields to create 3D audio landscapes. Ben Bridwell’s impossibly high voice (think early Neil Young) is always dripping with reverb and reaching for the stars. Sparse arrangements and thick harmonies follow unconventional progressions to make Band of Horse one of the loudest quiet bands recording today.
They’re a terrific studio band, and studio bands don’t always make for great live bands. So, I was apprehensive at how the band would be received when stripped down to an acoustic set up. Would their musicianship falter? Would this reveal songwriting that didn’t hold up?
I’ve liked Band of Horses for a while, but Acoustic At the Ryman made me appreciate them even more. They captured something in this release that my cynical ears needed to hear.
To take the food comparison further, if most recordings are like Twinkies, Acoustic At The Ryman is like eating an ear of corn pulled right from an Ohio farm in the middle of summer.
This is no live bootleg or simple recording off the console. These recordings were carefully made over two nights of performances at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, April 27 and 28, 2013. Their web site says the process was “one of a handful of non-Classical/Jazz albums mixed and mastered in the DSD format.” I have no idea what that means, technically. What I do know is that when bassist Bill Reynolds pulls a bow across his upright at the start of ‘Factory’, I feel it in my gut. Every fret buzz from Tyler Ramsey’s acoustic guitar is audible. I can hear Bridwell’s voice returning from every pocket of the room. Bill Reynolds’ impressive piano work is right up front. Whatever the technology behind it is, they succeeded in capturing the room in ways I’ve not heard before.
None of the tracks here are new to Band of Horses fans. While reworking old songs into a new format may seem like a way to appeal to the current fans, this CD could attract a new audience.
Songs like ‘Marry Song’ and ‘Factory’ are ones I didn’t think were very strong when originally released. Both of them shine here. The CD opens with ‘Marry Song.’ On their 2007 Cease To Begin CD, the song is almost a dirge. With this release, it has become a waltz, featuring harmonies that call to mind Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, or America.
Those thick vocal harmonies continue throughout the CD. ‘Everything’s Gonna Be Undone’ from 2012’s Mirage Rock became a room-filling sing-a-long at the Ryman. The infectious refrain of ‘Older’ got the crowd clapping a tempo while the band sang a-capella.
On the Band of Horses’ 2006 debut Everything All The Time, ‘The Funeral’ was the song which propelled a great deal of their early success. On the studio record, after a minute or so of simple guitar and voice, a wall of guitars and cymbals ambushes the song, creating a new energy. At the Ryman, the song was rearranged as a piano ballad, with a bowed bass and strummed acoustic holding the rhythm. While the dynamic changes were not nearly as dramatic, the core strength of that song came through: Bridwell’s vulnerable voice soared, faltered, and recovered to carry his plaintive lyrics to the end.
Perhaps nothing is better on this CD than ‘No One’s Gonna Love You.’ It’s as emotional a song as one can write. Depending on how you are feeling when you hear it, you can interpret it as a beautiful love song or tragic lament. Or both at the same time. Presented with just a guitar and voice, this is my standout track on the release. I’ll bet this gets played at weddings and funerals.
Not everything on this CD is perfect. The recording is pure enough to hear the mistakes too. And I’d prefer a song like ‘Laredo’ over ‘Wicked Gil’. I’d also like to hear Creighton Barrett’s drumming get involved on some songs. Perhaps the band will add to this set as they embark on an acoustic tour this Spring. But for this CD, it all feels relaxed and friendly. Inviting. Live. And I, for one, don’t get to enjoy enough live shows. I’ve been to very few that sound as good as this one.
Acoustic at the Ryman reveals a folk group masquerading as an indie band. Band of Horses fans should love this CD, of course. But I don’t see any reason that fans of acoustic folk music shouldn’t pick up this CD.
During the final song, ‘Neighbor’ (from the physical CD, without the iTunes extra), Bridwell sings, “Every house not a home.” We all know that line about what makes a house become a home. But I was left making the comparison regarding CDs I’ve bought in the past few years. So many are structurally sound and aesthetically pleasing. They are very good “houses.” Acoustic At The Ryman feels like a good home.