There’s a track by Dizzy Gillespie (feat. John Coltrane) called You Stole My Wife, You Horse Thief. It’s a sexist title, granted, but what a fantastic tune. Whether the Oklahoma band Horse Thief were named after that tune remains to be seen, but their music couldn’t really be much further away from Dizzy’s jolly bar-room boogie.
If you like Fleet Foxes and Grizzly Bear (who doesn’t?), and the Dark Was The Night charity CD, chances are you’ll already have earmarked and subsequently bought this record. It’s a fine continuation of the recent spate of records borrowing from the finest folk records and crafting them into different strains of indie or rock music(s).
The 11 tracks that make up Fear In Bliss represent a tasteful and refined stylistic shift from a looser variety of indie-folk towards a cleaner, ‘polished’ sound. This isn’t to their detriment, however; the songs feel brighter and hit more than they miss. Cameron Neal’s songs on the first record, Grow Deep, Grow Wild, were wistful, nostalgic shards of beautiful Americana and here they’re of an equally estimable quality.
After some intro noise, the shimmering I Don’t Mind kicks into gear with some distorted chords and insistent, barrelling percussion. The track builds towards ecstatic choruses with low-key, rolling verses – some superb rhythm guitar and Neal’s distinctive, charming vocal timbre turn the track into an album highlight.
There are other highlights, of course. Human Geographer has pleasant Sparklehorse vibes and less pleasant echoes of Mumford and Sons, but the former outweighs the latter by some margin. It feels relentlessly modern despite the reliance on a bygone-era aesthetic, and is another showcase for Neal’s superb vocal abilities.
The downbeat vibe of Already Dead is a pleasure: Gene Clark’s majestic No Other is being disinterred by Horse Thief’s contemporaries for another summer showcase at End of the Road festival, but this track seems like an audition for Horse Thief’s presence on a hopefully inevitable White Light supergroup-powered tour. In simpler terms, it’s a haunting and hugely endearing cut.
Dead Drum’s Tom Petty-esque strummed rhythm and quirky vocal melody is another treat – artists as diverse as The Men and The War On Drugs have shown deference to Tom Petty in recent years, and this track is a superb rendition of a classic formula.
The relatively radical step they take on Come On is surprise – it’s a minimal, rhythm-led number with some superb guitar work from Neal and Alex Coleman. Alberto Roubert’s sympathetic drumming is of a high standard throughout, and his ability to provide the necessary kinetic heft is no more apparent than on Come On.
Album closer Warm Regards uses ethereal keyboard chords to maximum effect – the track is a delicate, washing bucolic lullaby and a fitting end to a great record. It’s amongst the best cuts from either of Horse Thief’s records, and is an exciting indication of where Neal’s songwriting could go on future releases.
Comparisons to better-known and more-established acts can do young bands a disservice, but when the US is cultivating such a strong reputation for folk-tinged indie (or vice-versa) in recent years, the comparisons become essential. Horse Thief are a different beast to either Fleet Foxes or Grizzly Bear, granted, but they’re in the same ballpark in terms of quality. A better comparison would be Beach House, a cult favourite that grew into their fearsome reputation by gradually cleaning up and refining their sound until they hit the jackpot with the glorious Bloom. Horse Thief will inevitably hit the jackpot, and Fear In Bliss is a mighty step in that direction.