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Horse Feathers - Thistled Spring

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Artist: Horse Feathers

Album: Thistled Spring

Label: Kill Rock Stars

Review date: May. 7, 2010

Originally a stage name for Portland-based singer-songwriter Justin Ringle and his local open-mic performances, Horse Feathers has gradually become the moniker of a proper group — evolving from a duo to a threesome, swapping out accompanists, and most recently, rounding out as a four-piece band. With each change, Ringle and Co. (namely multi-instrumentalist and former Norfolk and Western hand Peter Broderick) have further smoothed the rough edges of their early sound. On their 2006 debut Words are Dead, with its relatively sparse ballads and sweetly echoed but sometimes off-kilter vocals, the group meandered and experimented in the rustic folk interstices separating Sam Beam, Will Oldham and fellow Portlander Dolorean. With their new third record, though, Horse Feathers have tightened and thickened their autumnal moodiness with a classicist, chamber-ensemble sound — and stifled themselves in the process.

Like the tangled web of branches and blossoms that supplies its cover artwork, Thistled Spring has a cloistered aesthetic that, upon repeated listens, teeters from protective toward oppressive. The plodding melancholy of banjo, violin and cello in minor and Ringle’s pinched, wispy tenor — now just short of innocuous — is so relentlessly restrained and self-serious that a few semblances of aberrant energy become escape hatches for weary ears. These fleeting moments tend to correspond to the brief passages bolstered by percussion; the sparse alternation of thuds and splashes on one and three are enough to pierce the laminate in which Thistled Spring too often feels encased.

“This Bed,” for instance, with its rollicking guitar and banjo picking, eventually builds to a cello-as-percussion driven climax that aspires to the heights of the Band, and might have come close enough, if its still-stilted sense of rhythm and pretty violin didn’t give it a whiff of Nickel Creek. Similarly, “The Drought” begins as one long crescendo of faintly twittering banjo and smoothly bowed violin countermelody, then peaks at each refrain with a percussion-approximating cello anchoring Ringle’s swooping, finally animated voice. Unfortunately, such moments — in which Thistled Spring briefly breaks through the hegemony of sullen malaise — are too few.

In old colloquial usage “horse feathers” means nonsense. The Marx Brothers used the expression for the title of their fourth film. Yet, from the first few somber piano notes — and an early line or two like “house that’s a tomb,” onward — it’s clear the Portland four-piece of the same name are, by contrast, deadly serious. Rather than serving as the down-home trappings of redemptive communal tradition (as in folk and country music deserving of its name), banjo and violin here largely supply a hermetic thicket of tepid glorification for solipsistic, minor-keyed alt-rock in hiding.

By Benjamin Ewing

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