Rock On

The Rocking Horse Winner comes down the home stretch toward the big time

Two years ago, this publication was ready to proclaim the Rocking Horse Winner -- whose young members hail from Davie and Boca Raton -- just about the best Florida export after fat-lady postcards. A pair of albums and national tours since, and nothing's changed: Bandwidth thinks the foursome, obviously on the verge of a breakthrough, should be well on the way to selling a buttload of records. Horizon, released last week on New York's Equal Vision Records (also home to As Friends Rust, Coheed and Cambria, Fairweather, and Time in Malta) is cut from the same bolt of cloth as 2000's State of Feeling Concentration. That is to say, it's full of optimistic, nonthreatening, pleasingly lightweight pop songs with above-average staying power but boasting slightly more of an edge than last time around.

The band's affable guitarist, the sleepy-eyed, stubbly Henry Olmino, tried describing it last month before a set at the Billabong. "It's more -- I don't know how to say it -- rocking, I guess," he offered. "The first one was atmospheric, and it swayed more."

Both RHW records were engineered and produced by James Paul Wisner at his Davie studio, further strengthening the connection between the Horsies and local success story Dashboard Confessional. It's an association the band isn't afraid to play up: a sticker across Horizon's cover reads "Featuring Jolie Lindholm, guest vocalist from Dashboard Confessional." Lindholm's backup vocals are evidently the stuff of indie/emo legend across the land, thanks to Dashboard frontman Chris Carrabba, who regularly name-checks Rocking Horse Winner during his shows. "You know that girl that sings backup on some of the Dashboard Confessional tracks?" begins a review of the new album on notpopular.com. "Yeah, well she has her own band."

The reviewer's final assessment? "Yeah, I think you need this CD, so get it when it comes out."

Not the most erudite writer, yeah? But much nicer than Kurt Morris from the All Music Guide, who takes a big dump on Horizon, reporting that "the band fails to capitalize on the success that it achieved with its debut release.... Surely this will sell well, as it has occasionally catchy choruses and the lead singer also sang on the wildly successful album by Dashboard Confessional, The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most, but it's quite similar to the style of pop music that way too many female vocalists are already putting out.... As is typical in the music business, trite, predictable pop songs will no doubt garner the band much success, yet the lack of creativity here is frustrating."

Given AMG's increasing fallibility with facts -- and the fact that not one song was discussed -- the above opinion seems questionable. Of the ten tracks here, only the last one ("Christmas Day") is nonessential. Two holdouts from the first album, the sugary "When Songbirds Sing" and the breezy "Tomorrow," sound sharper than ever, but it's the songs "Error" and "Miss You" that have been invigorated with a slashing guitar aggression.

Also making Horizon more fun than its predecessor are Wisner's little production favors. In "Error," he brings the song to a dead stop as if someone just sat on the turntable; at another point, he twists Lindholm's swooping voice into a screaming guitar line. Matt Crum's drumming, while mostly unobtrusive, is always dynamic and intricate. Guitar strings ring clean and clear, never multitracked into blurriness. Lindholm's voice is still trebly and girlish, but her candied coo seems more controlled. Bassist Jeronimo Gomez re-creates the sound of a simpler time, before sweaty five-string-slapping, braided goatees, baggy shorts, and annoying solos became typical bass-player accessories.

"The band is definitely maturing," Olmino said from a cell phone a few weeks later as the band's tour van sped across Indiana and his bandmates slept. "We're always changing." Through a nasty sore throat he blames on the Midwest weather ("It was 40 degrees, and then it jumped up to 80," he complains), Olmino is completely candid about snagging a ride on the back of South Florida's most recently birthed golden calf. "It could be a good thing if bands like us and Jimmy Eat World and Dashboard do get big, 'cause that's good music compared to what's out there right now. It could be a positive thing."

 
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