There comes a time in many an Americana band where gently strumming, growing a fulsome beard and jamming around a campfire no longer satiates the artistic hunger.
That happened to folk rockers Fleet Foxes, with frontman Robin Pecknold shaving off facial hair and going conceptual on their third studio release, Break-Up. Bon Iver's Justin Vernon ditched his wintry cabin, hung out with rapper Kanye West and went electronica in his band's eye-popping third record, 22, A Million (2016).
Now, No. 3 also happens to be the significant number for Lord Huron, the Los Angeles foursome fronted by Michigan native Ben Schneider.
Their latest, Vide Noir, is their first to be released on a major label, Republic Records, a division of Universal Music. Meaning "black void" in French, the title alludes to the otherworldly makeover the band have undergone, a shift that aligns them to constellation-obsessed colleagues, such as Seattle folkies Band of Horses as well as rockers The Flaming Lips and Tame Impala.
The latter two bands, not accidentally, were produced by David Fridmann, who worked with Lord Huron on this album and could update country to cosmos with a tap of the magic wand.
This he accomplishes with equal parts marketing savvy and eye-popping wonder - Lord Huron never sounded as lush and charmingly besotted as here.
Inspired by late-night drives in LA, Schneider dreamt up a narrative of a modern Lancelot hearkening after a runaway lover, contemplating the constellations (and specifically one mysterious Emerald Star), and wondering about "meaning amidst the cold indifference of the universe".
The opening track, Lost In Time And Space, sets up this confluence of primitive and urbane, invoking the kind of dazzling bewilderment that casts all listeners afloat.
"Aimless drifting into a far-off place/Hurtling through the vast unknown/Staring straight into the pure, black void," he pines against wave after wave of echoes and synths. Familiar strums surface like shards of memory, refracted through eternal loss.
"I don't know who I am, I don't know where I am," he sings, lost but not necessarily in a bad way. This suspension is jettisoned with Never Ever, a propulsive garage rocker driven by hard-hitting drums and lissome riffs, and a Bourbon-soaked vocal decrying: "Leave me where I lie/I don't care if I live or die."
When things calm down, they are not exactly what they seem. In Wait By The River, a doo-wop-gone-mutant warbler, Schneider transforms himself into an old-time crooner, declaiming: "I will beg for forgiveness/Get down on my knees/If I can't change the weather/Maybe I can change your mind."
True, he is not as charismatic as someone such as The Walkmen's Hamilton Leithauser, who pulled off that retro-baroque pop shtick brilliantly two years ago in his collaborative studio album with Rostam Batmanglij, formerly of indie rock group Vampire Weekend.
Nonetheless, there is genuine commitment as Lord Huron put themselves out there, exercising new muscles and filling out new threads.
Whether venturing into Lynchian land with When The Night Is Over or going funky on the album's title track, this is a band somewhere bound.