Early in his career, Neil Young was so fixated on capturing the American West’s heartbroken, heroin-damaged characters that he often left its mountains, oceans and forests to the listener’s imagination. Nowadays there’s no shortage of contemporary rock acts picking up the slack. Midlake, Band of Horses, Local Natives and Blitzen Trapper all paint their own pictures of the natural West, and now Horse Thief joins their caravan, lugging along with them big questions about morality and conscience.
“Fear in Bliss,” the band’s debut for Bella Union records, is an album of pretty campfire theology, and in every way an improvement on its self-released early recording “Grow Deep, Grow Wild.” It’s immediately noticeable in how much more crisp Alberto Roubert’s drums sound, indicative of the professional work of the Los Angeles studio “Fear in Bliss” was recorded in. And just as the clarity of Roubert’s texture and shading sharpened, so has Cameron Neal’s singing and the band’s composition, which seems to me like an all-inclusive effort to capture a westward cross-country trip that occasionally pauses for reflection and self-examination.
When Horse Thief goes big they succeed, evoking mountain ranges with the big guitar riffs on “I Don’t Mind,” then steadily introducing piano keys, languorous synths and finally a lush guitar solo as Neal’s voice rises and the song subtly climaxes. It sounds like somebody went down to the Ansel Adams exhibit at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art and splattered one of his high-contrast black-and-white landscape shots with gorgeous pinks and blues.
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