In the Chinese zodiac, 2012 is known as the Year of the Dragon. The dragon is the most auspicious and powerful of the 12 signs of the zodiac, the only sign representing a mythological creature, one associated with high energy and prosperity. The dragon is a symbol of superior control and is also said to be a good symbol that represents change and mobility. So you might be wondering why the Portland folk band Horse Feathers, seemingly named after a 1932 Marx Brothers film, would come out with an album named Cynic’s New Year in such a 12-month period of prosperity. Well, there’s a fair bit to be cynical about given the state of the world in the past year. From natural disasters that are seemingly becoming more potent (Japan’s 2011 earthquake and tsunami comes to mind), to the morbid cases of celebrities like Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston who don’t seem to get that excessive alcohol and drug use can kill you, to the ongoing sputtering of the economy, to flaring hotspots such as the Middle East, the world is indeed not a perfect place. However, there is much beauty to be had on Earth, and one of those things of beauty is this long-player: combining equal elements of Nick Drake, Sam Beam, and Seven Swans-era Sufjan Stevens, Cynic’s New Year is a starkly gorgeous album dripping with stringed instrumentation—whether that be the plucking of banjos and acoustic guitars or swooping cellos and violins—augmented by the odd plinky piano part, one that will leave the listen feeling utterly winded for all of its ragged glory.
Cynic’s New Year, the fourth album from singer/songwriter Justin Ringle and his cohort, marks part of an ongoing trend in folk and country circles to expand the number of musicians playing on an album to bolster the overall sound. The latest album from Americana band Drunken Prayer, for instance, had no less than 12 backing musicians play on it, while the recent debut record from Canadian folkies Paper Beat Scissors boasted 13 players in the liner notes. Cynic’s New Year sees the membership of Horse Feathers expand from a quartet to 11 musicians, encompassing added layers of instrumentation by bringing French horns, pianos, bells, upright basses and banjos to the fore. The overall effect is, by turns, haunting, meditative, and gentle—but not without its share of brittleness, too. However, this is, overall, a soft, gentle record of unfettered splendour, one that plays with loud-soft dynamics, particularly on opening track “A Heart Arcane”, whose lovely classical-style guitar softly strums away, only to occasionally leap out at you with a harshly-placed strum for effect every now and then. And for an album that purports to be something cynical, the very final line in the song is “Every ending begins the start of something new.” Even here, there’s the planted seed of hope and longing for a better future.
What makes Cynic’s New Year a resoundingly lush and artistic long player lies in the interplay of instruments. “Last Waltz” boasts the powerful dynamism of having careening violins contrasted by the low-end bass rumblings of cellos. “Nearly Old Friends” could be a sterling country number, but adds colours to its palette with the addition of the ever-present string section, and shifts its tempo slightly throughout the proceedings. “So Long” offers the regal sounds of a French horn piercing the storied folk flourishes. “Fire to Fields” features the starkness of violins swooning against a quiet echo-laden piano part. And, in a moment of compulsive consistency, the aforementioned “Fire to Fields” gives way to instrumental “Elegy for Quitters”—the first song nestling right up against the backside of the latter to coherent effect. Closing number, “Summer for Capricorns” ends the album on a musically uplifting note, starting life as a plain acoustic guitar number, and gradually adding in background vocals, piano, and horns. Essentially, if there was a genre that Cynic’s New Year effortless sat in, it would be “baroque folk”. This album is one of chamber-like music, the sort of thing that begs to be played in churches, not because there are any particular religious themes on the disc, but because there’s a certain fettered majestic feel to it that is almost reverential. This is music that recalls the rise of a glorious dawn of an early spring morning, with frost glistening off of flowers rising from the earth.
The only somewhat cynical thing that can be said about this auspicious and powerful album is that, at 12 tracks long, it may be too much of a good thing—there’s little deviation between the tracks, and, with the overall absence of drums and percussion on many of the songs (“Fit Against the Country” being a notable exception), the record is a little too low key for its own good. If you’ve heard one song on Cynic’s New Year, you’ve heard them all, to some extent. However, don’t let that detract interested listeners, for Cynic’s New Year is a glorious, absolutely beautiful record, one that is easy to get lost in and just lie back and relax with. It could even be one of those albums that might make particular men fall at their speakers and gently weep, such is the overall feel of lushness that permeates from every pore of this disc. This is a lingering, glorious field recording, one that effortlessly transcends genre to make something that is close to the realm of fine art that you would almost expect, if it had a more physical form, to see hanging in a gallery. Cynic’s New Year is a tip-toe quiet recording that has a lot to offer listeners, despite running at essentially the same snail’s pace tempo throughout. What Horse Feathers have delivered is something sterling and grand, a portrait of the frail and fragile, something that offers listeners reaped rewards on each successive listen. As a statement of the highest calibre, the so-called Cynic’s New Year isn’t something worth being cynical about in the least. If this is any indication of the type of music we can expect to hear in 2012, there’s less to be pessimistic about than anyone can imagine.
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// Notes from the Road
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