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I set up my laptop in the University District, solicited 100 or so music fans who didn't know Band of Horses or My Morning Jacket, and played them songs from each band. Thirty percent thought it was the same band; 30 percent could tell it was two different bands, but couldn't tell who was who; 30 percent could correctly separate and identify each; and 10 percent didn't care. One guy was on crack—he got snot on my headphones and asked me if I had any Bell Biv DeVoe.
My findings conclude that it is undeniable: Bridwell's reverb and vocal delivery are similar to Jones's. But is that so bad? Singers are artists and artists have influences they pull inspiration from. And if we need to compare the two, because they're similar, why can't we?
What is also undeniable is that Band of Horses' beautiful songs have won over many fans. Phil Ek (producer of the Shins and Modest Mouse) did his usual quality job with their debut record, Everything All the Time. There is true craft and a compelling heartache—it is a great record. Bridwell's vocals are cold and shrilling, though still chilling in a warm, lonesome way. But is it a shrill that was already someone else's?
Who's to say? The debate and mystery remain. It's art, and there's no definitive way to do it. And if we are going to call out Band of Horses, don't we also have to call out a thousand other bands too?
How many bands sound like Radiohead, Led Zeppelin, or the Ramones? It starts to get all wound up. Doesn't Modest Mouse sound a lot like Built to Spill and Interpol like Joy Division? Don't the Lashes sound too much like the Strokes and the Strokes like Velvet Underground? Isn't Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices copying the Who's Roger Daltrey? Don't early Death Cab sound too similar to Built to Spill? Don't the Decemberists sound too much like Death Cab? And don't Band of Horses also sound like the Shins? And the Shins, shit, they definitely sound like somebody. Does all college rock sound the same? Are these just the trappings of classification?
Trappings aside, when a band or artist gets huge, they influence others. If a guitar player is way into Jimmy Page, listens to him for nine straight hours, and then picks up his own guitar, Page-like sounds will transpire. It's what artists do to learn. If I were to read Edgar Allan Poe for weeks on end, I bet I would be quothing a raven or two the next time I sat down to write. Look at painters—Van Gogh, the surrealists, the impressionists. Van Gogh practiced by painting Monet and other artists, and the impressionists fed off each other. Musicians are no different. At what point does being influenced by someone become ripping them off?
This is the part of the study where I turn again to the people for their opinions. I interviewed a local radio DJ, a local record-label owner, and a local musician, and asked for their thoughts on the My Morning Jacket/Band of Horses comparison.
The radio jockey loves Band of Horses. He acknowledges the similarities and admits that there are many people who think Bridwell's vocals are too much like James's. But he also says, "My Morning Jacket are Southern rock. Along with Kings of Leon, they are carrying the torch handed to them by Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers. Band of Horses are more folk-tinged, a freak folk. All that matters is if it's good."
The musician echoes the DJ's sentiments saying, "Band of Horses are not ripping off anyone. Listen closely—the bands sound completely different.
"Indie-rock fans are passionate about their music," she continues. "They like to stake a claim in a unique sound."
The record-label owner said the first time he heard BoH, he thought it was new MMJ. (Many people whom I talked to, in fact, thought BoH was new MMJ.) He was turned off by it. He really liked the production by Ek, but says, "It gets dangerous when a sound that has already been done is simply getting reproduced. I hear more After the Gold Rush–era Neil Young in the Band of Horses than anyone else. The '60s- and '70s-style reverbs are so classic, but the artists have to be careful to put their own spin on it."
This seems to be the crucial part of the discussion: Artists must be able to harness their influences and then add their own individual take on them; if nothing new is there, then the style or sound is simply mimicked. Musicians must either become themselves or they become something else entirely. As far as Band of Horses and My Morning Jacket, the future will show which direction the debate will take. For now, voids and vocal styles aside, I got 50 bucks that says Bridwell can take James down.
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