Bell Horses: This Loves Last Time

Bell Horses unites the considerable talents of Xian Hawkins (who as Sybarite has issued electronic material on 4AD, Temporary Residence, and Ghostly International) with singer-songwriter Jenny Owen Youngs for the thirty-one-minute debut outing, This Loves Last Time (issued on the band's own Trysquare label). That the release is short by full-length standards isn't a crippling negative in this instance, as its eight songs leave the listener wanting more, not less. Though apparently not an official Bell Horses member, Alexander Ericson (ex-lead singer of Swedish alt-rock band The Northern Territories) might as well be, as he handles vocals on three of the tracks with Youngs tackling the other five. Alternating the singers works well and keeps the level of listening interest up—not that it necessarily needs it when the arrangements are as rich as they are here. Bell Horses' fusion of acoustic (guitars, piano, strings, percussion) and synthetic sounds and textures enables the band to differentiate its sound from that of other song-based vocal outfits.

Bell Horses's electronics-folk-pop-rock mix gets a memorable workout in the opening song “Still Life” when Youngs delivers the chorus so hauntingly; her vocal also helps distinguish the slightly softer “The Storm,” which also proves entrancing on melodic grounds. Ericson shows himself to be as effective when he takes the lead in “Small Hours,” with the languorous vocal line stretching itself out ever so elegantly over live-sounding drums and violin (the viola and violin playing contributed by classical string player Eve Boltax to six tracks adds considerably to the album's strong impression). The gauzy production style applied to the dreampop of “The Comb” lends the song a shoegaze quality that elevates it slightly over the album's other tracks, and having Boltax's lush string textures and Michael Lerner's drumming on board doesn't hurt either.

The album's live sound turns out to be somewhat illusory, as instrumental and vocal tracks were developed via e-mail, though the majority of the music did end up being recorded, arranged, and mixed by Hawkins in a converted Victorian Church in Western Massachusetts. Such a long-distance developmental process accords with the band name, which derives from a turn-of-the-century children's song about horses being strung with bells so as not to collide when they pass in the night. Sounding very much like the proverbial labour of love, This Loves Last Time ultimately registers as a polished and special recording that identifies Bell Horses as a band to watch.

November 2009