Horse Feathers

Thistled Spring

(Kill Rock Stars; 2010)

By Andrew Hall | 8 May 2010

I first heard of Horse Feathers in 2007, when they played a tiny basement show in Walla Walla to a near-capacity crowd. The promoter, somewhere on his poster advertising the show, wrote “Sam Beam, watch your back.” Since then, Horse Feathers have released two albums (2008’s House With No Home and this one), changed personnel (siblings Peter and Heather Broderick left Portland for Europe and joined Efterklang), and ceased sounding anything like Iron & Wine aside from the fact that both are fronted by bearded singer-songwriters. Incidentally, Fleet Foxes played that same basement a year later to under forty people, released their first EP four days later, and went on to never play basement shows in Walla Walla to forty people ever again. Go figure.

Across Thistled Spring, Justin Ringle presents his songs with big arrangements displayed through a low-key lens. His backing band—currently Nathan Crockett, Catherine Odell, and Sam Cooper—moves quickly and efficiently, using acoustic folk as an outlet for fast-moving melodies obsessed with interplay. It’s as if every sound is birthed to complement another, which makes this music sound urgent and driving, emphasizing rhythm while downplaying percussion.

Throughout most of Thistled Spring the acoustic guitar is overpowered by its surroundings, especially the strings, which are mixed louder and move the songs along. In “Starving Robins,” for example, Ringle’s picked guitar gets nowhere near as much power as the violin and cello, which propel the song into its chorus and present its most immediate melody. In “Belly of June,” the banjo and strings take the arrangement and ride it effortlessly from verse to bridge and back again. This highlights how good his current backing band is, but at the same time it discounts Ringle’s own performances, which sound less welcome within the space of his own songs than ever before.

These songs, especially in the album’s first half, are uniformly gorgeous—the melodies are often quite good, and this record is all about finding ways to showcase melodies—but they suffer from sameness. Almost every song moves quickly and swiftly through a few ideas and…then comes to a sudden end. “Cascades” at least puts a focus on dynamics like few songs here does, and “The Drought” swells, drones, and builds tension to great effect, as Ringle’s voice finally carries some real weight. This happens again on “Vernonia Blues,” which tears through seasonal imagery with striking economy without burying Ringle in the process, and “The Widower,” which pulls off an ending that puts vocal melody dead center, then repeats it exactly enough to make clear just how good it is.

If anything, this is an album hurt by the fact that no matter how good each individual part on any given song is, their writer and singer is lost in the process, either a consequence of how the album was mixed or simply how these arrangements work. Taken in pieces, and at its peaks, Thistled Spring is quite good, and among the least austere and most welcoming austere-sounding folk records released this year. As a whole, it sounds almost like a study of singer vs. song, a display of accompaniment overpowering lead so aggressively that it’s more frustrating than pleasing. Horse Feathers still has huge potential, but this proves that Ringle has progress yet to make, no matter how good his performances are and his songs could be.