Few bands are more dependable than Portland’s Horse Feathers. Twelve years in, they’ve pumped out six good-to-great LPs, including their most recent,
Appreciation. This consistency is even more noteworthy considering that the band has been in flux since day one. They’ve seesawed from two members to 11 to now five. Their themes have shifted along with their lineup. And their sound has steadily evolved from a strict back-country Americana to something that fits organically within the PNW folk-rock scene. Every album has seen them edging closer to the Decemberists and further from the Avett Brothers.
Appreciation, their fifth release on Kill Rock Stars, this transformation continues. Plucking, picking, and fiddling – and the dark, insular songwriting of Thistled Spring and Cynic’s New Year – are long gone. That’s not to say that Justin Ringle’s distinct vocals and Nathan Crockett’s violin aren’t still a steady presence, but the dynamics have shifted. Major keys abound. Joslyn Hampton’s backing vocals make the compositions feel wider. A soulful rhythm section adds momentum. Drums and bass are often front and center, like on the excellent ’70s-rock facsimile “Without Applause” or “Best to Leave”, and piano features regularly. Tinkling keys add depth to “Born in Love” while heavy chords lend heft to the opening of “Altamont”.
To put this shift into perspective: their last record,
So It Is With Us, was notable for including drums at all. The sheer scope of this change brings to mind Iron & Wine, which started as an outlet for Sam Beam to sing dusty songs about dry creeks and aging dogs. But by 2013, he’d recorded Ghost on Ghost, a jazz-folk odyssey that stands out as a bold, evolutionary moment in his catalog.
A helpful reference for where Horse Feathers’ sound now resides is in the country-pop scene of the 1970s. “Without Applause” evokes Three Dog Night or CCR. “Altamont”, its name a nod to that era, has a driving country strum. On “The Hex”, loose drum fills and echo effects on the vocals give the impression of a live recording from a crowded university concert hall where the students wear ties and sit politely during the performance. Even the album cover – an unfiltered close-up of Ringle’s face, presumably onstage, with a spotlight behind him – evokes 1970s LP cover art. The kind of record cover Jim Croce or John Denver or Eric Clapton would have used.
Which is all a long-winded way of saying that Horse Feathers has evolved expertly, and
Appreciation is a case study in artistic growth. It’s undeniably Horse Feathers, but it’s also a unique entry in their catalog. Six records deep, that’s hardly news. At this point, it’d only be newsworthy if they somehow made a bad record.