The exponential bloating of the folk-rock revival has plagued many a band. The confluence of stringed instruments, introspective lyrics and a ubiquitous bass drum have become the hallmark of the genre. Starting out as a duo, Portland, Oregon’s Horse Feathers as fronted by Justin Ringle on 2006’s debut, Words are Dead, blossomed into a trio on 2008’s frost-bitten House With No Home, expanded to a quartet on the regenerative 2010 release, Thistled Spring and ultimately included 11 musicians on 2012’s Cynic’s New Year.
Pondering an end to a band — one’s own baby — is a decisive move, akin to taking the pro-choice side of the Roe v. Wade debate. Yet such a conundrum was faced by Ringle following a year supporting the hushed Cynic’s New Year. Dealing in humanity’s bleaker moments over the span of four albums, Ringle contemplated calling his career as a musician a day. Having taken time off — a self-proclaimed “arduous period of self-doubt and discovery” — Ringle wisely convened his now-quintet of backing musicians to record the band’s fifth album, So It Is With Us.
Largely foregoing the solemnity of his band’s back catalog, Ringle leverages the chamber-folk angle on the ebullient opening track, “Violently Wild”. For a band known to eschew a rhythm section, Ringle captures the prototypical, scissoring folk beat on “Thousand”. Pairing bass recruit Justin Power with longtime drummer Dustin Dybvig, there is a noticeable low end on the dark soul of “Why Do I Try” and the dark rendering of society’s lower-echelon caste system on “The Knee”. Typically utilizing Nathan Crockett and Lauren Vidal’s respective strings to anchor the band’s sound, Power and Dybvig surge along the condescending “Old Media” and anti-contrition of “Middle Testament” with its chorus of “Drink the wine / Taste the blood / Pay the toll”.
Even with the upbeat “Dead End Thanks” and pleading love song “Irene”, to call So It Is With Us an ode to joy is a misnomer; Ringle’s lyrical guile resounds throughout the album, separating Horse Feathers from its myriad folk brethren. By removing the instrumental plumage from Ringle’s songs, his words could be shaded with a multitude of musical styles. Singing “We don’t speak of what’s to come” on the escapist “Small Melody”, one can hear Lucero’s Ben Nichols singing the song in a gritty fashion while feeling wholly original to his band’s oeuvre. The same for “Old Media”, which could easily be streamlined into a bitter, hyper-speed punk diatribe.
On the fifth chapter of biennial vignettes of the human condition, Horse Feathers detour from their usual stoic approach with Justin Ringle now exuding paternal responsibility for the musical child he birthed eight years ago. Singing on album closer, “What We Become”, Ringle worries about being “Afraid of wasting a lifetime / Being a child.” Now seeing the truth is “Right under our nose / And right under our thumbs”, Ringle understands that the growth patterns of his offspring rely more on nurture than nature. By reflecting on their past in order to see a clear future, So It Is With Us finds Horse Feathers aging wisely, perhaps even enjoying life a little bit more.