Horse Feathers

Words Are Dead

(Lucky Madison; 2006)

By Kate Steele | 22 October 2007

Have you ever stood in front of a painting and thought, Hmm -- that’s nice. What composition and use of colour. How balanced and attractive; how pretty. You wander in its midst for a while, observe it from different angles, try to let it catch you off guard by walking around a corner and back toward it. Despite your best efforts to be taken in by it though, you’re not. It’s got all the elements of a painting you’d normally respond to, so why doesn’t it move you?

Listening to Horse Feathers’ Words Are Dead has been the auditory equivalent of this experience. I’ve dragged it out longer than I might linger in a gallery, though, and fearing that it was just British Columbia’s incessant winter rain that’s inspired the heavy, uneasy feeling that commences upon listening, I’ve brought it out sunny days too. But it’s not the weather that’s been the problem. It’s me, and this album.

The Portland duo Horse Feathers, Justin Ringle and Peter Broderick, play expansive, moody folk. And -- sorry but it must be said -- they sound a lot like Iron and Wine. Ringle sings, plays guitar, banjo and drums and Broderick’s the creator of all other sounds on the album (violin, banjo, mandolin, saw, cello, piano, viola). When they sing together, they sound like the same voice. You can imagine them, seated opposite one another in the way Simon and Garfunkel used to practice, using each other as mirrors and forming the same shapes with their mouths. Their vocal and instrumental deliveries are precise and effective. A lot of work and love was put into the making of this album, and it shows.

So what’s the problem? There are flashes where Words are Dead is so pretty and evocative that I feel guilty for not being just a flood of flowery adjectives. Songs like “Hardwood Pews” and “Blood on the Snow” court me with their stirring crescendos -- at the three-quarter points in both songs where the strings and Ringle lift off and flutter like snowflakes in a light wind -- but then, try as I might, the rest of songs and lyrics don’t hold my attention long enough for me to actually listen them. Or to actually hear them.

At the few points where the lyrics veer into the spotlight, they’re tinged with a vague, perplexing misogyny: “Lovely ladies make pretty babies, it’s true.” While the lyrics “walking and running, sucking and fucking at your will” don’t necessarily refer to a woman, they definitely seem out of place on the gently-strummed “Walking and Running.” This jarring juxtaposition may be what Ringle aims to accomplish, but it leaves you wondering if there’s a reason he whispers most of the time.

It would be one thing if this album were just trying to fit itself under the “indie” umbrella. The whole thing, though, from the classical-influenced strings on “Finch on Saturday” to the minor, acapella opening of “Honest Doubters” screams “we’re more that just an indie band!” It’s a difficult dance, bringing together old sounds and themes -- the song titles give you a few hints toward these: “Hardwood Pews”, “Dustbowl”, “Mother’s Sick” -- with contemporary overtones (can you imagine the lyrics “she was born to cry herself to sleep” in a traditional folk or blues song?) and laying the product before a modern-day audience equipped with all the cynicism and suspicion in the world.

Where Horse Feathers come up short, I think, is in their absolutely no-nonsense, earnest approach. Iron and Wine’s Sam Beam is smart to know that listeners, though they may allow themselves to get swept headlong into his murky, passionate world, need a break. He’ll insert a straightforward love song or a more upbeat one, to take the intensity down a notch, and then ramp the emotional knob up again. This is something Horse Feathers could stand to learn. Ringle’s pulsing, whispery voice and the band’s use of strings as a lead instrument on every track help sustain a relentless, dark intensity that is overwhelming. Though beautiful, the strings could have rested on a few tracks. The injection of a little breather -- a laugh or a leg stretch -- would have gone a long way.

Words are Dead has already launched Horse Feathers into the indie spotlight. For a listener too interested in the stuff inside the frame, though, it doesn’t provide the whole picture.