The Besnard Lakes

The Besnard Lakes Are the Dark Horse

(Jagjaguwar; 2007)

By Conrad Amenta | 16 February 2007

Half-hidden behind an incandescent shimmer of reverb and delay, the Besnard Lakes are trying to signal through the radio crackle of distant AM signals. In their bio they invoke the Beach Boys, Roy Orbison, Pink Floyd, and Fleetwood Mac: comparisons that, while suitable enough to match styles, might also be too easy or unfair to do any justice to this, their sophomore album. There are rich harmonies, to be sure, but should one really ask to be compared to harmonists of Wilson's or Orbison's stature? There are lengthy and patient arrangements, but can one assume from them as canonical a status as enjoyed by Floyd or Mac? Perhaps it's best to look at the band's (or label's) presumptuous comparisons as stated goals, and so assume that they aimed high and fell predictably short of impossible targets.

Which isn't to say you can't hear the echoes of a number of classic rock staples emerging in swells from these mid-tempo stoner rock jams; you might add Neil Young, The Mamas & The Papas, Jefferson Airplane, or any number of wall-of-sound bands to the Besnard Lakes' already intimidating list of referents. It's just that those additions would be similarly superficial. The truth is that all kinds of bands (including Grizzly Bear, my favorite band of 2006) are today suggesting a solid reading of rock classics as an alternative to the myopia of predicting tomorrow's scenes. For the sake of fairness I'd like to place the Besnard Lakes appropriately; I'd call them a Black Mountain without the grime or a late-night comedown in aching bodies looking for a couch. Something besides your classic rock radio station's cover band contest winners.

Looked at with a more contemporary eye, Are the Dark Horse is much easier on itself than the band's promotional material implies. "Devastation" is ostensibly a monumental riff and a female chant, and its vibe and refrain carry through with behemoth, well, devastation. For the song's six minutes it dog-piles its noises of shimmer and shake until reaching its tiny drum freak-out and clamorous, last-ditch assault. It's a high point nicely set up by the silky shamble of triumvirate "Disaster," "For Agent 13," and "And You Lied to Me," which all display an ear for knowing, melody-driven production. "And You Lied to Me" is especially fastidious and painstaking in its build to rhythm-based accents while maintaining the album's overarching, sleepy experience.

The album suffers a considerable drop-off after these first four songs; though "lazy" is not an adjective one can reasonably use to describe these songs' denser surges and the trappings they pile up, it is one that can be used to describe a half-dozen songs into what becomes something resembling a dirge. The band performs with a six-person lineup and often a five-person choir, and this provides a large, appealing cadre of sounds from which to choose, as one might expect; but the tempos and dynamics rarely shift from one song to the next. And so the Besnard Lakes mistake redundancy for consistency.

The band has wisely opted to explore the space inside individual songs rather than expand their track list, but even still, with five out of these eight songs breaking the five minute mark, Are the Dark Horse can be a slog. "Because Tonight" and "Rides the Rails" harbor the same vocal harmonies and drenched guitars as the rest of the album, along with the same patience and attention to detail, but weighted under the songs preceding, it's difficult to give them due consideration -- takes some effort to arrive at the first chorus halfway through "Rides the Rails" after the seven plus minutes of "Because Tonight." Otherwise, both songs could stand up as the album's best.

Sift through Are the Dark Horse and the sounds of the Beach Boys or Orbison can certainly be found, but the band has yet to learn the clean, economical songwriting of their influences. Given the choice between calling the album a failure and simply calling the comparisons facile, I'd prefer the latter; the Besnard Lakes may be on to something with their excavations, yet the sum total is not so distinctively decades old as to exclude it from the here and now.