With their debut album This Loves Last Time, Bell Horses shoot to compose an album that bounces between genres while staying steady in creating one unified sound. Synth-driven beats, acoustic guitars, and haunting, folk-oriented vocals are blended together to create atmospheric, ambient songs.
This fusion is best utilized on the opening song “Still Life.” With a hint of strings and eerie guitars providing the pace, the synth beat paints a dark melody that portrays the song’s theme of loss. The production finds a perfect balance between the electronic and acoustic elements. The strongest performance on the album comes from the female vocals on this track. Indie pop singer-songwriter Jenny Owen Youngs has never sounded so distant, wounded, or plush.
Bell Horses is a collaborative band consisting of electronica artist Xian Hawkins (who normally records under the pseudonym Sybarite) and Youngs, with assistance from Michael Lerner (The Antlers) and Alexander Ericson (Alberta Cross). Each member of the collective reordered their contributions on their own with Hawkins composing the songs after receiving them via email. As Young describes in her MySpace blog, “I received a MySpace message from a gentleman named Xian, asking if I might be interested in collaborating with him on some new recordings… Xian has been sanding, fine-tuning, and perfecting these songs for a good long while.” In this, the heart of Bell Horses and This Loves Last Time comes from Hawkins’ ability to weave these separate parts into cohesive arrangements.
Indeed the album does a fine job of melding its separate parts, while simultaneously exploring the sound of each of those elements. “Billowing” is straight ambient that utilizes a drum ‘n bass beat and acoustic guitar for an all instrumental effects; the only vocals come from harmonizing that is mixed down to act as an instrument itself. Several songs are very pop friendly including “The Storm” which sounds like it could have come straight off of one of Youngs’ solo albums. Album closer “Dust of Us” also is very assessable for the masses and features a less tortured Youngs than the opening song.
There aren’t any major missteps on the album. However with only eight songs to explore Bell Horses really don’t stray far from models that are already out. For example, the tracks “Small Hours” and “Headmess” use the vocals of Ericson in a very Thom Yorke-ish manor and both resemble something circa Kid A-era Radiohead.
In the end Xian Hawkins has efficiently done what many electronica producers try to do with less impressive results— assemble elements from different musical worlds to one symphonic structure. It would be interesting to see if Bell Horses records a follow-up, and what kind of material could surface if these musicians actually spent time in a studio together. For now This Loves Last Time will do, and there’s really nothing wrong with that.