Horses don’t have feathers. Duh. The name is a deliberate contradiction, much like a string quartet that plays rock music. But unlike the characters in the Marx Brothers movie that shares its name, the band called Horse Feathers doesn’t fumble around; their performance isn’t a comedy of errors.
Unfortunately, it’s the very fact that every action is so studied — that it’s so beautifully orchestrated and meticulously performed — that robs Thistled Spring, the third full-length from the Portland, Oregon four-piece (their second for Kill Rock Stars), of its hook. No smash-and-grab antics or dramatic football finales for Justin Ringle’s Horse Feathers. It’s stark and gorgeous, yes, a mashup of romantic string arrangements and melodic keys and emotive guitar and gloomy vocals. But entire swathes of the album run together; though it’s very pleasantly atmospheric, each song has trouble standing out from the blended timbre of the record as a whole. From the angelic backup singing, accordion, and acoustic fingerpicking of “This Bed” to the beautiful classical sandstorm of leadoff “Thistled Spring”’s first seconds, everything fits neatly into a tiny, hand-whittled wooden box.
So where are the flaws? When moments of the record get nominally more gnarled, I wake up. “Vernonia Blues” creates a little more tension than the rest, perhaps, as a darker, dancier do-si-do, tambourine-heavy and with lyrics about gasoline, rain, “A sinking feeling deep down in [their] chest,” and someone’s dead daddy. And “Cascades” — with its pizzicato strings and almost impressionist lyrics (“She weeps in the blush of dawn”) leading up to a Gustav Mahler- or Hans Zimmer-worthy climax rich in bass and a vortex of bows — stands out because it’s somehow texturally just the littlest bit different. After a few songs, the ear just craves some variety, something of which HF’s previous releases offered a little more than Thistled Spring does.
Likewise, “The Drought” revolves around almost gypsy-inspired, Greek-ish, quick-strummed mandolins (or something similar), so that while the melodic structure is just like everything else we’ve heard, and the instrumentation is very, very similar, at least it’s phrased a little differently. But the majority of the album (“As A Ghost,” “The Widower,” “Belly of June,” etc.), while sweeping and pretty, simply fades into the background. Every song is seriously performed and so technically competent that it gets infuriating, for me, that it can’t punch through whatever plexiglass barrier stands between its emotional fist and impact. I keep literally walking away from it.
Maybe it’s the lack of comedy itself that’s the biggest factor contributing to Thistled Spring’s samey-ness. In each and every song, Ringle seems to emote with a sort of eyes-closed, brow-furrowed intensity that’s hard to take uninterrupted for almost 40 minutes. Horse Feathers should consider taking a lesson from the Marx Brothers; I almost wish someone would make a joke or something.
But there might be something here I’m personally just not getting; when Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago was first released, and I adored it, I had to explain over and over to certain friends why something so outwardly gentle spoke to me so profoundly. It could be the same with this. The soundscape prevents my submersion, just as some people couldn’t dunk themselves into For Emma. They just couldn’t care. Thistled Spring seems a really lovely idea; the lyrics are beautiful, the musical texture is auburn and wood-hued, smooth-sanded and multi-faceted. But there’s nothing that speaks to me. Like a horse with feathers, this album seems something of an impossibility: full of substance, but somehow lacking it all the same.