After key Band of Horses influence Neil Young experienced his commercial peak with Harvest -- the 1972 country rock cornerstone -- he famously reflected that it had put him in the middle of the road and that he soon “headed for the ditch.” On Mirage Rock -- the follow-up to the Ben Bridwell-fronted act’s Grammy-nominated, game-changing 2010 release, Infinite Arms -- Band of Horses keep a safe distance from the ditch with the help of producer Glyn Johns. As it happens, he’s the very man who helped the 1972-1973 period Eagles lineup hone their saccharine, radio-friendly and harmony-laden sound while Young was exploring comparatively rugged and less-traveled terrain. Seemingly enlisted to consolidate the success of the self-produced Infinite Arms, Johns brings a great deal of experience to Mirage Rock. Production-wise, while Infinite Arms was layered and cavernous, Mirage Rock has a heart-on-sleeve immediacy to it, borne out of Johns’ insistence that the band deliver well-rehearsed live takes of much of the material. However, while their third record flowed effortlessly, the ebb of Mirage Rock is, to some extent, compromised by an earnest attempt to showcase the band’s eclecticism. The strong opening trio of tracks -- the pounding, lo -fi indie rock of “Knock Knock,” the striking Jayhawks-inspired country pop of “How to Live,” and the laid-back, melancholic West Coast haze of “Slow Cruel Hands of Time” -- are contrasting but inspired choices for the album’s front end. However, the mid-set “Dumpster World” -- sonically closer to a pastiche of George Martin’s America than the Eagles -- has its understated sarcasm crushed by a chugging alt-rock mid-section. Similarly, while Bridwell’s uptempo and overtly political “Feud” approximates Graham Nash fronting the Foo Fighters, it sits awkwardly between the bluegrass-tinged “Everything’s Gonna Be Undone” and the truly beautiful, strolling Buffalo Springfield nod “Long Vows.” All in all, though, it’s the pros that outweigh the cons here. Bridwell’s natural gift for melody is given room to shine throughout and is complemented by some of the finest, most spine-tingling harmonies among the band and their contemporaries. There’s also a playful sense of humor evident here on tracks such as “A Little Biblical,” which can sometimes be lacking in the music of Fleet Foxes, Kings of Leon, and their ilk. In addition, Bridwell shows that he can match Robin Pecknold lyrically on “Slow Cruel Hands of Time,” a sincere, heartfelt rumination on growing old that takes in the grandeur of “the sky…in the yard” and the minutiae of stumbling across “a big city man” he used “to rumble with…back in high school.” Overall, though, while Mirage Rock sees Band of Horses further immerse themselves in Americana, more than anything it finds them enraptured by the simple joy of music-making. “Electric Music” -- a freewheeling slice of Stones/Creedence-inspired rock -- encapsulates this premise and finds them “traveling the open road” without a ditch in sight.
AllMusic Review by James Wilkinson