The Pacific Northwest houses a very specific brand of indie-folk – a brand championed by Fleet Foxes and continued along by dozens of others. Horse Feathers unmistakeably belongs in that trend. However, they also reach towards Appalachia – folk’s true home – with aspirations that surpass the bounds of pop music. Frontman Justin Ringle, with a voice in the vein of Sam Beam, sings of tragedies small and large in a way that sounds classic, touching on the very roots of roots music. But the contrast between the band’s Portland aesthetic and their lyrical content becomes a limit they cannot quite navigate.
The discrepancy shows itself in the cracks between music and word. On “Fit Against the Country“, Ringle sings of blue collar living and the simple difficulties of making ends meet:
Every night we all go to a house we’ll never own
Every night we are tired, we’ve been worked to the bone
Nearly every day, we earn a lower wage
to tell you what we’re made of, or just what we’re paid
It’s a hard country we’ve made
Cynic’s New Year contains many such poetic gems. But the lines come against a backdrop that doesn’t fit with working class austerity. No song on the album is simple. Nothing is bare-bones. While the result is a textural album full of, at times, stunningly lush beauty, the combination can become tiresome. The sobering lyricism dampens the beauty into a dense and minor-keyed thicket that the band can’t quite escape.
In truth, this problem pervades the whole of the Northwestern folk scene. Ringle hints at something of the sort in “Better Company“:
All the towns are empty, everyone’s inside
Not an inch astride and every month’s the same
Winter rains are coming to drown the Coastal Range
And again on “Pacific Bray“:
There’s a wave that came crashing down
to beat all the life from the coast
A Portland winter is a beautiful thing, but the ubiquitous gray surrounding it can become oppressive. Horse Feathers aim to sublimate that emotional context into something greater, but succeed only in replicating it. Folk fore-fathers transformed the difficulties of mountain living into virtuosic string playing. Country and Blues went straight ahead with grit. Horse Feathers take the latter’s direct lyricism and the former’s moods, creating a refreshing pop sound, but not one with the proper depth. And unlike the “Eleanor Rigby” approach, Cynic’s New Year can’t quite utilize pop’s possibilities in full.
To their credit, however, the band is also composing music about this very resilient quality our hard times have. On opener “A Heart Arcane“:
Time don’t change with a heart arcane
Every day was born the same
Despite what I do
Every ending begins the start of something new
Their subject matter is precisely the crushing feeling that one’s tragedies will continue on. They amply demonstrate that sentiment, but do not solve the dilemma as does the National or Neutral Milk Hotel. In other words, if Cynic’s New Year were a break-up album, it would only make one’s depression worse.
Horse Feathers make truly beautiful music, but it is too tied to the Portland scene. Without reaching the higher registers of their ambition, the band floats along in the rough Oregonian waters they sing of: they capture the allure of the picture without calming the swells, nor quite capturing the details of the beguiling charm.