Southern rockers, A Thousand Horses, burst onto the scene in 2015 with their Dave Cobb produced debut album, ‘Southernality’. They managed that rare feat of gaining both fans and critical acclaim with their brand of Skynyrd based Country that sailed close enough to the rock shore that they pulled in fans of Black Stone Cherry and Kid Rock as well. A visit to UK as ‘surprise guests’ at the C2C festival also caused a stir on this side of the Atlantic as well, so it is with much anticipation that we see them release a new EP. ‘Bridges’ is actually 13 tracks long but only the first 6 are studio songs, the rest are live versions of both new and old songs alike.
What is plainly obvious from the get-go is that there has been a polishing of ‘The Horses’ sound. ‘Bridges’ has got producer Dan Huff’s stamp all over it. Huff has been involved in most of the biggest selling Country albums for many, many years now. His hard rock background in the AOR band ‘Giant’ means his approach to A Thousand Horses will be different to what Dave Cobb’s was and I approve!! I like the bigger sound, more polished tone of the songs but that’s maybe because I also have a hard rock background, the bigger, the better, for me and so track 1, ‘Blaze of Somethin’’ is just a joy. Great beat, great drive behind the opening as Michael Hobby sings about living life to its full potential. Hobby’s gruff, Southern infused vocals haven’t changed but the instrumentation has. More Eli Young Band meets Def Leppard than Black Stone Cherry jamming with Skynyrd and that is purely down to the difference between Dave Cobb and Dan Huff, I would suspect. Great gospel vocals underpin the final quarter in what could easily be the band’s concert opener for many years to come. Ryan Hurd had a hand in the co-write credits too, which gives you an indication of how the band are trying to refine and polish their output.
Other songs on the EP benefit from that approach too. Lead single ‘Preachin’ to the Choir’ starts off with a dirty Southern guitar riff but then goes all sing-a-long anthem on the chorus as it becomes the most commercial song the band have ever produced. More female Gospel infused backing vocals and lines about ‘sparking up your lighters’ leave this one in definite ‘anthem’ category. It’s a huge, huge song that I could see echoing around State fairs and fields all over the confederate flag territories of the South.
‘…Choir’ is not the only anthem on ‘Bridges’. ‘One Man Army’, a sensitive love song about being all anyone ever needs, is almost Michael Bolton-esque with its ‘heart on the sleeve’ yearnings and declarations of love. I love it, big guitars, big backing vocals and rock leanings but I’m not sure some fans of the dirtier side of A Thousand Horses will find it as palatable. The move over into the mainstream from ‘Southernality’ may well leave a few people behind but I 100% believe it will win more fans than lose them.
“Bridges’ is not a complete step away from the sound of the debut. The title track is a mid-tempo, laid back song about learning the lessons that life teaches you, ‘No worries, it’s just water under the bridges I’ve burnt’, Hobby sings. More gospel influences and hand-claps add an extra flavour to a basic song, raising it above the norm. Whilst ‘Burn Like Willie’ with its twangy guitars and funky bass lines is probably the closest sound to ‘Southernality’. A drinking song with a big chorus and dirty rhythm – it has still been polished in the way that Dan Huff does and Dave Cobb doesn’t, but it’s a polish I approve off. An explosive guitar solo in the style of Southern rock legends Tesla or even 80’s rockers The Georgia Satellites leads the song into a big rock finish that long term fans of the band will approve of.
Final new song, ‘Weekends in a Small Town’ was co-written with Jaren Johnston and Neil Mason of The Cadillac Three and sees the band sounding uncannily like Black Stone Cherry in the first 90 seconds. Hobby’s vocals are definitely more ‘provincial’ on this track than on some of the more refined ones. Familiar lyrical tropes abound, small town goodness, not changing who you are, Friday night lights and trucks. It’s fine. A tad clichéd compared to some of the brave decisions that the band have made on ‘Bridges’, if you can call embracing the mainstream ‘brave’.
The other tracks on the EP are live, acoustic songs from a show in London from 2016. What’s interesting about this section of the EP is that stripped of their Huff polish the newer songs like ‘Preachin’ to the Choir’ and ‘One Man Army’ sound much more akin to what long term fans of the band would probably be expecting. ‘One Man Army’ has a plaintive fiddle underpinning it that changes the tone of the song completely from its studio version. Gone is the Richard Marx / Michael Bolton rock ballad, giving way to something much rawer, more organic. As they go forward as a band, A Thousand Horses will be lucky if they can exist in both worlds. I hope they can because if they want to widen their fan base this is exactly the sort of thing they need to do. Their talent and ability to write a huge song is not in question, musically, ‘Bridges’ is a definite step forward. I’m just not sure all of their fans from ‘back in the day’ will come with them, which will be a shame because I think they could take them somewhere fairly unique and special.
James Daykin (@rockjames)