In the humble beginnings of this website, before the days when the forum was overrun by casino and pharmaceutical company infiltrators, there was an ongoing battle between residents of the two `homes’ of Treble, San Diego and Seattle. Lines were drawn in the sand, great bands claimed, and the truly awful ones foisted upon the claimants like so much catapulted bovine. (Example: SD claimed Tom Waits, but also had to live with Sprung Monkey.) But lately I’ve noticed a different kind of city battle going on, now between Seattle and its unkempt, unwashed hippie-like cousin to the south, Portland. Up to now, Portland has taken somewhat of a backseat to Seattle as the birthplace of Hendrix, grunge, the dot com boom (and bust), the Sci-Fi Museum (we’re geeks and we know it), and has held the distinction of being the homes of both Frasier Crane and Dr. McDreamy. While Portland may not be stealing Seattle’s throne, upon which sits an indie rocker with a heavy crown, ringed with circling monorails, it is starting to rival its faster paced cous’ more every day. Powell’s, Chuck Palahniuk, Coffee People and the Decemberists have done more for Portland and its appeal in the last ten years than the Trailblazers ever could. Not only are people moving to Portland in droves, but also some Seattle residents now prefer to see shows in the `City of Roses’ at the Crystal Ballroom (after a 2-3 hour drive) rather than any of the Emerald City’s venues. What’s the lesson to be learned? I guess that the grass is always greener in Portland, and double entendres are wicked cool.
The latest act from Portland, Horse Feathers, is another reason why the city is lately seen as the laid-back and artier version of Pacific Northwest utopia. Made up of singer guitarist Justin Ringle and multi-instrumentalist Peter Broderick (formerly an unsung part of Norfolk & Western), Horse Feathers is an organic acoustic folk duo to end all folk duos. Ringle has the perfect voice for accompanying plucked guitar notes, tinny banjoes, weeping violin strings and tremolo mandolins. Ringle began as a solo act, but after Broderick caught one of his open-mic night showcases, the two became an act together with listeners receiving all of the rewards of the union. Each and every track of the duo’s debut album, Words Are Dead, is a delicate treasure with its own magic to be mined with every listen. When opening track “Hardwood Pews” transforms from solo acoustic guitar track to violin and piano backed ascendant glory, we know we are in for one of the more rewarding albums of the year. When Ringle sings, “Remember we’re born to die, but she was born to cry,” in “Finch on Saturday,” we want to weep along with her. In other words, the music of Horse Feathers somehow manages to reach into the heart and manipulate with every note. This is nowhere more evident than on the stunning closer, “Mother’s Sick.” Ringle sings, “Life just don’t always fold up neat. Sadness will come in different sheets.” Folk music, like most great art, was always meant to reflect the human condition, and Horse Feathers provides the loveliest mirror imaginable.
I’ve met more than a few people who feel that Iron & Wine’s Our Endless Numbered Days was a betrayal of his stark demo bedroom recordings. Since I know that Ringle and Broderick are fans of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, it might be easy for me to assume that Words Are Dead was going to be an equally stripped down affair. Though it is dark and spare and beautiful, it is fleshed out wonderfully by the addition of Broderick’s artful flourishes. Beware the reviews to come that will throw around the heaps of folk comparisons, specifically with dour Englander Nick Drake. Sure, there are similarities, but Horse Feathers has something going on that defies comparison and description. The words may be dead, but the music is definitely alive, kicking and flying.