Band of Horses strips down and steps out on 'Acoustic at the Ryman'
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
The best live albums serve a purpose beyond merely documenting a moment in time. Band of Horses has taken that ideal to heart, as their latest record, Acoustic at the Ryman, finds the band stepping away from the comfort of rolling waves of guitars in favor of bare-bones instrumentation.
The historic Ryman Auditorium likely served as the inspiration for such an experiment. The famous Nashville venue was the home of the Grand Ole Opry until the mid-seventies, and for most of the show’s run, electric instruments (and for some time, drums) were strictly forbidden from the stage. Band of Horses don’t get quite that formal in their arrangements — there are definitely hints of electric organ and piano — but they’ve drastically changed their approach here.
And to be sure, the setting has drastically reshaped the songs. “Detlef Schrempf” trades in its soaring guitars for piano and minimal extra backing, transforming into a vehicle for Ben Bridwell’s vocals. “Marry Song” follows that tradition, and with the guitars all but muted, the band’s harmony vocals become the star of the show. “Everything’s Gonna Be Undone” takes on more of a country, rag-time feeling when taken down to just guitars and vocals. “Factory” lives well, even without the pro-tools string arrangement of its studio counterpart, and as with much of this record, the piano becomes the dominant instrument.
All these exercises wind up giving many of these songs a decidedly new attitude, beyond simply changing the texture. A song like “No One’s Gonna Love You” becomes much more desperate when the chiming sonics are removed, leaving just Bridwell and a single six-string to tell the story. If it’s true that stripping a song down to its bare bones will reveal its power (or lack thereof), then the tunes that the band has chosen for this album will pass any test.
In throwing themselves into unfamiliar territory against the Ryman’s traditional backdrop, Band of Horses carried that retro spirit into the record itself, coming in at a lean 40 minutes that feels more like the live records of old rather than the 21st century bootleg trend of unleashing any and all live material on fans at once. In that sense, it’s easy to wish there were more here; recorded over two nights, there had to more moments where the sparse instrumentation helped to highlight the natural authority of the songs.
But to be fair, that would be complaining about the hypothetical. What is here is and will remain more than enjoyable. While their music is still best served by the electric sonics of the original recordings, these acoustic interpretations offer an intriguing counterpoint to the rest of Band of Horses’ catalog, and it’ll live on as a Sunday morning record for years to come. It more than serves its purpose.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org