Horse Feathers began as a solo acoustic project when Justin Ringle, having formed a handful of indie rock bands that lived brief lifespans, moved to Portland. After his arrival there, he had no job and no band, just an acoustic guitar. So he started writing songs, and it wasn’t long before Horse Feathers grew to a proper band. That being said, Horse Feathers has never been your traditional indie-folk ensemble. While each album has been beautiful in a quiet, sullen manner, there are explosive moments on each album. These moments, such as the violin build on “Curs in the Weeds” (on sophomore release House With No Home), are subtle, but powerful, and really point out Ringle’s indie-rock background, as well as his intention to create the music he and his band mates choose to create, without much restriction at all.
With 2010’s Thistled Spring, these moments grew more prominent, the entire album having a more steady feel, and Horse Feathers truly began sounding less like a singular writer surrounded by accompanists, and more like a true band. But it’s on their fourth release, Cynic’s New Year, that those two sides — the contrast between quiet folk-songs with understated energy and the precision of a well-connected band — find the proper, delicate balance.
With opening track “A Heart Arcane,” Ringle’s rich vocals are the focus, gliding above a steady bed of strings. However, beginning with “Last Waltz,” those beautiful moments — violin and cello solos, minimalist percussion, and plenty of space between verses for instrumental builds — become the focus. As Ringer allows his grittier indie rock roots to take influence on Horse Feathers’ songwriting, the result is a top-notch collection of 12 songs that sound like a folk band’s take on classic rock standards.
However, this isn’t to say that the album comes off as less serious or even campier than previous Horse Feathers efforts. In fact, single “Fit Against the Country,” the most pop-centric track on the record, is still as solemn and mystic as the aforementioned “Curs in the Weeds.” The primary difference is that this record doesn’t just provide a subdued, soulful kind of stimulation, it also compels you to bob your head and beckons your feet to dance.
Despite its title, Cynic’s New Year boasts an optimistic tone and a nostalgic aesthetic while managing to summon a groovy vibe never before channeled on past efforts. And this being the group’s fourth effort, it’s surprisingly fresh in its subtle but impressive ability to slightly alter perceptions of how indie-folk is supposed to sound.