Horse Feathers’ last record, House With No Home, was very much a winter record. The thinned-out frosty compositions, the chilly melancholy, even the cover art all showed off a band who played beautifully and insistently, even as they could see their own breath. Thistled Spring contains nearly the same elements — string-driven folk songs, sweetly hushed vocals, spare, if any, percussion — and yet it gives us a much warmer sound. This is, as the title implies, the sound of rebirth. But how did they manage this shift with the same pieces in place?
One answer comes in an addition to the recording team. Touring multi-instrumentalist Sam Cooper joins the trio on this record, and while he doesn’t change the make-up of these songs, he does add a lush warmth to them. The simmering piano on the title track fills it out beautifully, even as singer Justin Ringle trails his words back to the last album, singing of a “house that’s a tomb”. Later on, Banjo plinks lightly over the low roll of Ringle’s guitar on “Vernonia Blues”, giving off a livelier sound than anything on House With No Home. In other spots, Cooper spins guitar lines around Ringle, or weaves tiny, precise sounds through the haze of strings floated out there by Nathan Crockett and Catherine Odell. This combination, the playful and sharp amid all the blurry wandering, proves an affecting mix, one that feels more built-up, more expansive and intricate than the band’s previous work.
On top of that, Ringle’s singing is in top form. He’s still got an unassuming hush to that curling voice, but with a thicker foundation, he pushes himself a little bit, earning a new hopeful emotion by pulling every bit of feeling out of each phrase, each word, each syllable. He’s not totally belting it out here, but there’s just a bit more body to his singing. He’s up in the mix, and responds to the spotlight with a voice of surprising strength. The way he reaches up with each line on “The Drought” shows a pleading desperation, while the way he cuts and staggers lines on “Belly of June” shows off a newfound hope, an insistence to press on.
Horse Feathers press on because, even in the warmth and new growth of the record, there are wounds to heal. The heartache and pain Ringle has always sung about is here, but on Thistled Spring it all feels more bedded down in the past. The reach of that hurt, its ability to haunt, is stilted as they move on to fresh starts. “Come to me like a lover,” Ringle sings at one point, not in pining want to a former beau, but to a new someone, someone he’s in those exciting brand-new days with.
Even when things are at their most bleak — Ringle closes “The Drought” singing, “There’s no reason to try” as the sky refuses to rain — the band is just setting up a rebirth to come. House With No Home was a comfort because its melancholy was beautiful, but also relatable. There’s something cathartic in seeing another’s isolation. Thistled Spring, however, is bracing because it refuses to wallow anymore. It recognizes all the past’s ache, and gives it a sound, but the album turns itself over to hope in the end. The last line of the record — “At winter’s end, you may come back to life” — sums it all up perfectly, that nod to the dark past, that insistent hope for the brighter future, which — now three excellent albums in — looks to be where Horse Feathers are headed.