Time was when folksy, bearded fellows fingerpicking their beat-up acoustic guitars were a dime a dozen. They roamed free over the hills and forests of the Pacific Northwest and among the concrete environs of Silver Lake in Los Angeles, heeding the call of the soft-spoken wild made so attractive by Sam Beam. Sometime over the past few years, though, the prevailing winds shifted, and it seems like only a few genuinely rustic-sounding acoustic outfits are still around. Hell, even Iron & Wine went all funkadelic on Kiss Each Other Clean. Now, with their fourth studio album, Portland’s Horse Feathers have gone the way of the studio in Cynic’s New Year, which distances itself from its predecessors by way of varied instrumentation and even, yes, a smattering of percussion.
It’s a fairly logical evolution for a strings band, which began with Justin Ringle’s whispered vocals and bluegrassy arrangements in 2006 and grew to include cello and violin provided by siblings Peter and Heather Broderick. They made lilting, airy music that seemed ever suspended over a mountain range, though Ringle’s lyrics generally erred on the side of the macabre and downtrodden: on 2009’s “Curs in the Weeds,” he sings “It’s like marrow without bone / to live in a house with no home.”
Though the Brodericks have since departed, and cellist Catherine Odell and violinist Nathan Crockett have joined, the overarching musical narrative has changed only subtly. In second track “Last Waltz,” all the Horse Feathers ducks are in a row, from the fingerpicked backbone to the wistful string arrangements – but the soft cymbals and tambourine pop, while quietly tucked into the background, might as well be the cannons in the “1812 Overture” for how they suddenly shift the band’s sonic fingerprint. In such small doses, it’s a refreshing, welcome change for Ringle. In grander contexts, like the vaguely Renaissance-fair tone of “So Long,” the band loses sight of the rough edges that make them so likable.
When tempered by a bit of the old minimalism that characterized earlier albums, the inclusion of other new sounds sounds more like gentle experimentation, a humble probing of what might sound good together. “Nearly Old Friends” is uncharacteristically strummy for Horse Feathers; punctuated by electric guitar riffs, it sounds almost like a long-lost Stones track, if the Stones had beards. It’s the album’s centerpiece and its best track, and shows how measured Ringle and his band can be in their exploration. “Fit Against the Country,” a jangling power march, waxes political in what’s hopefully the context of an old mining town or something equally devastating, the only context in which questions like “Does it tell you what we’re made of, or are we just what we’re paid?” and “What kind of life is lived this way?” don’t sound trite. In other places, though, imagery is stark and clear: “There’s a thimble of light for an acre of sky.”
For all its questing, though, the album’s – and the band’s – heart and soul are the simple arrangements which, layered upon one another like a stack of firewood, often signify something greater than their sum. Whatever pitfalls of sentimentalism lie on the path the band trots, Ringle and his bandmates only sometimes fall in. If they do, well – that’s why they’ve got feathers.