Horse Thief’s two biggest – and most obvious – influences are Workingman’s Dead/American Beauty era of the Grateful Dead and the songwriter side (and vocal tics) of Neil Young. The Oklahoma five-piece have made a fine folk-by-way-of-psychedelia indie rock record called Fear In Bliss. Here’s the thing, though: If the band’s goal was to simply create a solid set of songs, they succeeded. If, however, the band’s goal was, as vocalist and guitarist Cameron Neal stated last year, to attempt to “capture the intensity of live show” on record, Bliss is not it.
Which is unfortunate, given the strong songwriting found here. The band’s ability to build around simple melodies by sprinkling guitar and keyboards instead of coating them is a wonder in itself. Take “Let Go,” for instance: Twinkling guitars and keys sashay around Neal’s tender voice, creating a warm, melodic bath of sound. It’s a thing of beauty. Or take the electric guitar lines that flutter around the acoustic-led, country-flavored “Dead Drum.” The best example (and song), though, is “Devil.” The track swims in the undercurrent created by gently pulsing bass and tumbling percussion during the verses, only to splash out of the water like the flying fish during the chorus propelled by gleaming guitar.
Even when the band steps slightly outside of its midwestern guitar glisten – like the funky percussion on “Come On” or the contemplatively acoustic ditty “Already Dead” – or when they borrow from the songwriting 101 textbook – as on “Little Dust,” where the band builds to a wonderful bridge that climaxes when the music drops out except for the guitar melody – there’s still a lack of depth in the studio versions of these compositions. It’s an depth that, while lacking in the performance side of things, is not in the way of lyrics. Neal comes off as a heartland philosopher for much of the disc, but that doesn’t take away from the the sheer weight of his words. When he proclaims that he doesn’t “think about the Devil, but he shows up every night,” it sounds less like a religiously-based conviction than a simple fact of reality. Likewise, on “Dead,” Neal discusses life and loss when he (achingly) concedes, “And I don’t think that I will ever see you/Unless there really is a god or a heaven for us all/I must be dreaming/Today.”
All of this makes for an excellent listen. Add to that the sparse production – a dry, but not brittle, affair – which allows such an audible clarity that you can almost hear tumbleweeds roll by. Yet, one look at a Horse Thief performance reminds you just how great they are live, and how little justice this record does in that regard. Sadly, the furvor HT’s able to whip up is essentially absent on Fear In Bliss. The songwriting is there, as are great performances. But with a band like Horse Thief, the difference between in studio and on stage is a distraction that’s as unfortunate as it is glaring.