It’s unfortunate that Horse Feathers‘ Justin Ringle never gets lumped in with the rest of the indie folk A-list, among names like Robin Pecknold, Justin Vernon, or Sam Beam. The four records of breezy, ramshackle Americana he’s released with the Portland outfit have been every bit as good as second-tier folk acts such as Bowerbirds and, at their best, have graced a similar strata of rustic beauty that’s been the trademark of bands like Fleet Foxes. This fourth LP once again comes close to making that leap, but ultimately it falls just short of the mark.
Cynic’s New Year picks up where the last record left off, continuing an incline in positive outlook that began on 2010’s Thistled Spring; while the imagery in Ringle’s lyrics regularly touches on the morose sidesaying goodbye is a common themethe album sounds more hopeful than his comparatively cold-feeling House With No Name. The music itself is diverse: Opener A Heart Arcane is beautifully minimalistic, centered on his vocals and a meditative acoustic guitar trill, while Last Waltz follows up with a clamorous, multi-layered instrumental backing of banjo, jingling tambourines, wistful violin, and cello. The record boasts contributions from at least a dozen musicians without ever feeling bloated; Ringle’s wispy, Neil-Young-by-way-of-Nick-Drake voice is never overwhelmed by the occasional piano and numerous strings.
Horse Feathers is at least consistent: They’ve put out a chain of really, really good records, all of which have maintained an above-average standard of quality. Ringle’s an excellent songwriter, but each record feels and sounds too similar to the last, which holds them back. It’s going to take a more drastic change in direction for Horse Feathers if they want to push themselves over the hump and into the upper echelon among their rightful peers.
Essential Tracks: A Heart Arcane