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Horse Feathers - House With No Home

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Artist: Horse Feathers

Album: House With No Home

Label: Kill Rock Stars

Review date: Sep. 8, 2008

Horse Feathers is a Portland-based band led by Justin Ringle, an Idaho native who moved to Portland in 2004, along with Peter Broderick, a multi-instrumentalist who has played with a number of bands in Portland over the years, and cello player Heather Broderick (Peter’s sister). Their first album, Words are Dead, received a warm reception from critics when they released it in 2006, and an equally warm reception from fans of Iron and Wine-style Americana. Although Ringle wrote the songs on the album as demos, Words are Dead showed a band that knew more or less exactly what it was going for. Ringle’s singing voice, which rarely rises above a whisper, positively begs for comparisons to Sam Beam. That’s not an exhaustive description, however, since Ringle holds up well when he sings at full voice. Peter Broderick really set the band apart, however, writing gorgeous instrumental breaks for violin, saw, mandolin, banjo and guitar. The only real knock on the album - and this was more obvious in Horse Feathers’ live shows - is that the songs were a little underwritten, each lasting only a few minutes and stopping rather abruptly at the end of the last verse.

House With No Home, their second album and their first for Kill Rock Stars, fleshes out the songwriting while keeping intact the quieter, atmospheric elements that made Words are Dead so appealing. The production pulls off a delicate trick, surrounding Ringle’s quiet vocals with the Brodericks’ string parts, without the vocals sounding flat or underwhelming. Usually, this is accomplished by building each song from a bare guitar-and-voice opening verse with progressively more elaborate instrumentation. “Curs in the Weeds,” the album’s first song, begins quietly before quickly moving into a sweeping break for Broderick’s violin. The most up-tempo song on House With No Home, “Working Poor,” opens in a similarly quiet fashion, with just a banjo line and Ringle’s voice, but is pushed along by Heather Broderick’s cello and some vocal harmonizing from the full band during the chorus.

And it’s that delicate balance that keeps House With No Home from being an easily-defined genre piece. Ringle’s lyrics recall many of the folk traditions that appear again and again in pop music - you can tell by the title that a song like “Heathen’s Kiss” is recalling a different era. But the music has high-art elements - even drifting into brief periods of formlessness on “Albina” and “A Burden” - that would never show up on a Smithsonian Folkways compilation. It is really a much more modern album than the Americana tag would at first suggest, and the songs are as instantaneous and memorable as the best pop music. Two years ago, Horse Feathers came out of nowhere with their style fully formed. House With No Home is a better album than Words are Dead and, Words are Dead was pretty damn good. So everything seems to be working for them at the moment.

By Tom Zimpleman

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