As various indie rock trends have come and gone over the years, Band of Horses have remained remarkably consistent. Since the release of their debut Everything All The Time a decade ago, the band has put out three studio albums that all have the same distinct sound – a very American style of indie rock that’s more country than the Black Keys and more classic rock-influenced than Wilco. Of course, the most distinguishing feature of the band has been singer Ben Bridwell’s high-pitched reverberating vocals, often sung in such a way that you have no idea what he’s saying (Bridwell once remarked “there are definitely words, I wrote ‘em down on paper and everything” regarding the lyrics on Everything All The Time). Essentially, you know what to expect when Band of Horses releases a new album.
Fifth studio release Why Are You OK does little to buck this trend, but is still original enough to carve out a niche in Band of Horses’ discography. Jason Lytle, who you may remember from late 90s – early 00s band Grandaddy, produced the album and there’s a very slight hint of his band’s vaguely-experimental style throughout. More striking is that Why Are You OK opens with the seven-minute “Dull Times/The Moon,” the longest track Band of Horses have ever released. The song begins with a Pink Floyd feel, complete with background vocal samples and sliding guitar, before picking up steam with some power chords and returning to the Band of Horses you’ve always known. It’s not only an ambitious way to begin an album, it’s potentially the most ambitious thing the band has done.
The only other major surprise comes halfway through the album on track “In A Drawer,” which features both drum machines and guest vocals from Dinosaur Jr. frontman J Mascis. The former is unexpected considering how rarely the band deviates from traditional rock and country instruments, while the latter is unprecedented as the band has never utilized guest vocals, making Mascis’s baritone voice at the chorus particularly striking.
Aside from these two instances though, the remainder of Why Are You OK is fairly standard Band of Horses fare. This isn’t a bad thing, since the band has achieved considerable success with minimal changes to their overall sound. But take for example the single “Casual Party.” It’s not at all a bad song, in fact it’s one of the best tracks on the album and is decidedly catchy, but it’s also not too big a stretch to say that it could have been on any of the previous four albums.
Perhaps the biggest change for Band of Horses on Why Are You OK lay outside its tracks. Bridwell is now the father of four children, and wrote most of the album at home. This shows in many of the lyrics, especially on the repeated refrain of “home is where the heart is/home is where you are” on “Dull Times/The Moon.” Even the conclusion of the track “Casual Party” is that the narrator would much prefer to be home, a far cry from “Weed Party” on Everything All The Time. The track “Whatever, Wherever” meanwhile is about familial devotion, and is likewise matched by a video interspersed with family gatherings. Band of Horses are frequently compared to bands like The Eagles and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young that are sometimes referred to as “dad rock,” so it’s almost fitting that the band is now becoming a different type of “dad rock.”
In their decade-plus of releasing music, Band of Horses have yet to make something that’s been truly off-putting. The closest they’ve come is Mirage Rock’s edge into beer commercial rock territory in 2012, and even then it had its moments. Instead, they’ve kept the bar at a relatively stable level by minimizing risks and sticking with what they know, for better or worse. Why Are You OK may have a number of tracks that sound similar and will blend in with the remainder of Band of Horses’ repertoire, but its overall feel and production combined with a handful of strong tracks ensure that it remains an overall memorable album.