By Leanna Bornkamp
With their fourth studio album, Horse Feathers has truly honed their folk ability. However, the moments of development are few and far between. With instrumentation that exercises constraint, while making few leaps in innovation, the Portland-based group makes just enough changes to make Cynic’s New Year sound like a new album.
Tracks like “So Long” don’t sound much different than that of House With No Home. However, the thicker instrumentation of the song quickly makes the distinction between the two albums. The addition of a clarinet is one of the most intriguing components of the album – but the pale, predictable bass-line does little interesting. Still, like “Rude to Rile” from House With No Home, “So Long” has highly similar, creepy overtones. The introduction of a harpsichord-like sound also incorporates a Grateful Dead-esque sound – thankfully something stood out.
Of course, the whole album isn’t entirely predictable, despite the lack of true development. “Fire To Fields,” another track on Cynic’s New Year, offers exotic percussion and an almost foreign feel to the breakdown. Coming from such a traditional American folk band, this song is highly interesting; the use of large mallets on rhythm instruments like timpani stand out drastically in the composition. In some parts of the song, the typical strings take on a new sound, reminding listeners of the score to some romantic drama.
One thing that has always differentiated Horse Feathers from the pack of 21st Century indie music is their practically complete lack of software effect use – but they seem to break the barrier in their own special way with Cynic’s New Year. In “Birds on a Leash,” lead singer Justin Ringle (he looks JUST like Ron Howard, it’s almost uncanny) seems to put pseudo-effects on his vocals. After much consideration, though, it becomes clear that he is likely just singing through his hand, cupped to make an echoing sound.
Effects are much more obvious in “Better Company,” a song with drones in the background that are still clearly created by strings and other acoustic instruments. The mandolin introduction clearly hints at the Punch Brothers’ latest album, Who’s Feeling Young Now, but this feeling doesn’t last beyond the beginning of the verse. The smooth, eerie background vocals sound as though they are underwater – but, again, the effects used are difficult to classify as software-based.
Still, despite the eerie side of the album, Horse Feathers manages to bring in subtle hints. In “Where I’ll Be,” Folk-y instrumentation paired with a more generic, Top 20-esque chord progression offers a more predictable, pleasant sound – one that will attract a larger audience. With choice piano melodies that chirp over a rhythm guitar track, “The Only Exception” often comes to mind.
The instrumentalists in Horse Feathers are more than capable (with their years of experience and dozens upon dozens of songs), to mimic the sound of software effects with the live instruments they use every day. It seems as though the clearest way to decipher how they create these effects would be to see them live – and we’re in luck! They’ll be playing a show on May 9, 2012 at the Bowery Ballroom, just some blocks south of Baruch College, in the Lower East Side.
Sounds Like: Punch Brothers, Iron & Wine
Favorite Tracks: “Bird on a Leash,” “Summer For Capricorns”