Much like My Morning Jacket – the band with which they are most frequently compared – Band of Horses’ early albums relied on a roots-rock-via-indie-rock aesthetic and the reverberating, echoing vocals of frontman Ben Bridwell.

However, while Jim James and Co. tended toward the gritty, dirtier parts of their influences, Band of Horses were content to work within the milieu set by their first album Everything All The Time – an earthy, roots-rock sound filtered through a polished modern-day sensibility. And you know what? They did just fine with that.

A change, however, came with 2010’s Infinite Arms. Whereas the band’s line-up was initially a proverbial revolving door of musicians, Infinite Arms featured a more solid line-up.

The result was, for better or for worse, their most polished work to date. Though the album boasted beautiful numbers like “Evening Kitchen” and the dynamic title track, the mostly mid-tempo rock numbers tended to blend together after a while.

Perhaps the subsequent touring experience behind Infinite Arms did the band well. Mirage Rock, the band’s most recent album, is the sound of a band who is less self-conscious and more comfortable in its own skin.

While the lush, polished sound that has permeated every Band of Horses album is still present here, there’s a definite looseness to their chemistry as well as a greater diversity of sounds and tempos. Frankly, they sound like they’re having fun, and the feeling is contagious.

The opener “Knock Knock” sets the mood. Headed by a propelling guitar riff, the song is a fist-raising rock tune with a chorus destined for a sing-along. Other songs like “Feud” further prove that the band is here to rock out.

However, the band hasn’t abandoned their penchant for introspective, quiet numbers. “Slow Cruel Hands of Time” feels like it could have been featured on their debut album.

That’s not the say the album doesn’t encounter occasional missteps. In “Dumpster World,” Bridwell implores his listeners to “light a candle for the suffering ones.”

The sentiment is admirable, and the song contains a nicely sinister bass line; however, it comes across as an ill-fated stab at political relevance and feels out of touch with the rest of the album. Likewise, while not a poor song by a long shot, the slide-guitar number “Long Vows” does little except slow down the pacing.

The album comes to the close with the extraordinary “Heartbreak on the 101.” Channeling his inner Bruce Springsteen, Bridwell delivers the first part of the song in a breathy, grizzled voice that sounds straight-up Drive-by-Truckers. Backed by a string section, the track transports the listener into an alternate universe, or the final scene in some grand movie.

Mirage Rock is an album bursting with personality and passion. It’s an excellent step forward for the band and places them at the forefront of the alt-country scene.

– By Mark Rozeman