I know at this point it’s annoyingly cliché (and kind of snobby sounding, regardless of how it’s intended) to say that you like a band but prefer their early, harder-to-find work, but there it is. While House With No Home is a good, maybe great record from a band that are becoming one of my favourites, I still prefer their debut, 2006’s Words Are Dead. It’s great to see that they’ve made the jump to better distribution on Kill Rock Stars and even better to see that they haven’t fallen prey to the sophomore slump, but I can’t get away from the feeling that there’s something slightly lacking here.
Well, maybe lacking isn’t the right way to put it. Justin Ringle’s lyrics, weaving from oblique to blunt and back again, and his feathery voice are still in fine form, and Peter Broderick continues to have an unerring sense for the kind of understatedly gorgeous backings these songs need. Broderick’s sister Heather is a great addition to the band between her cello playing and backing vocals, and certainly House With No Home is as satisfyingly paced and sequenced as its successor. The high points here come close to my favourite moments on their debut, and they’ve even gone in a few new directions (nothing on Words Are Dead is quite as enervated as “Different Gray”’s sumptuous crawl, for example).
At their best, Horse Feathers are essential listening to anyone interested in folk music, acoustic music, whatever broad general category you want to put them under. “Heathens Kiss” is still under five minutes, but works in a scope and scale they haven’t really essayed before and the effect is stunning, especially when the song bows down and slows its pirouetting strings for Ringle to gently intone, “Heathens kiss, softly”. “Helen” sounds almost like a swooning love song until you pay closer attention to the lyrics (“Helen if you come, I think you know I’ll go / Much the same way the sun steals the snow”). The way that chorus unfolds out of the record’s most insular arrangement, with half the vocals whispered in the background, is a sublime moment of a kind you’re going to get from no other band.
So if I begrudge them at all, it’s only slightly, and only after experiencing both genuine pleasure at the quality of the songs here and also relief that Words Are Dead was not a fluke. But that record means something special for me. I liked it at the time, but probably undervalued it: I’ve played it more than any other record from 2006 in the few years since. Ringle and Broderick’s sound and songcraft arrived fully formed, but maybe it’s the sparseness of their work as a duo that I’m drawn to. Whereas the violin and cello on House With No Home often sticks to the sweeping, gracious lines you’d expect, Broderick’s violin work on Words Are Dead is pointillist, nagging, insistent, coming at you at odd angles. Both records existed for me in an Impressionistic haze before the songs really coalesced after repeated listening, so maybe a part of this is just how long I’ve had both of them around to hear. But there’s something tensile, febrile, about the songs on their debut that the more conventionally pretty House With No Home doesn’t quite seem to reach.
But I don’t want to create a false dichotomy, and maybe I’m guilty of talking inside baseball here (I’d be curious to know if the sonic difference between the two albums is apparent to many other listeners). “Curs in the Weeds”, for example, opens this record with one of Ringle’s most beautiful melodies, and Broderick follows it with a violin part that flows gracefully from short, almost pizzicato (although still, I think, bowed) figures into something more elongated and keening. It’s a sublime moment and a great song, and part of the reason why I feel churlish for knocking them even slightly for getting a bit prettier and lusher. The band’s palette has expanded as they have, and the touches of celeste, cello and added vocals certainly add lovely shades to Horse Feathers’ music. In many ways, House With No Home is the ideal second album for a band like this: a refinement and broadening and deepening, even of their sound, one that suggests a rich and hopefully lasting career.