Album Review: Horse Feathers- So it is With Us

There’s a part of me that can’t believe that a) Horse Feathers are still a band are still releasing music in 2014, and b) that I have chosen to take time out of my life to write about their new album for this blog.

But here it goes.

So like six years ago I first heard the song “Curs in the Weeds” by Horse Feathers, on a lonely night at the bookstore I was working at back then. We used to carry CDs and we had gotten their album House With No Home in the store—I had no idea what it was, but the incredibly stark landscape on the front piqued my interested, so I looked them up online and was blown away by what I heard.

This was in a post-Nickel Creek, pre-Mumford world where “nu grass” or whatever was still coming into its own as far as a mainstream (theoretical) genre or whatever.

Much to my surprise, after Googling “Horse Feathers the band” I found on their My Space site (yikes!) that they were playing at one of the colleges IN MY VERY TOWN later in the fall!

My wife and I walked to the concert with a friend of mine. We got there at 8, when we thought the show as. It was at 9. We sat around for an hour killing time. A forgettable opening band called These United States opened. Horse Feathers sounded good, but we were sitting on a couch, and couldn’t really see among all the college students that were at the show, standing, being young, or whatever.

I tried to buy a t-shirt after the show was over. The venue at this college is literally a basement, so it was dark as fuck. The band sold me a medium women’s t-shirt. I figured it out when we got home, and so I had to drive right back over and get my $15 back from them.

It was awkward.

But hey cut to two years later when I was, like, some kind of rising “radio personality” or whatever in Northfield. In 2010, Horse Feathers released a 7” with a cover of Nirvana’s “Drain You” on it; they also released a follow up album, Thistled Spring. They had gone through some line up changes and the shift in sound was very obvious. And because I was trying to play “new” music of the time or whatever on my show, I would occasionally play “Drain You” or the single from the LP, “Belly of June.”

But in 2010, my interest in Horse Feathers as a band had waned.

And now here we are. In 2014. And before me sits the new release from the Portland-based band, So it is With Us.

Front-Feather Justin Ringle has always had a voice extremely similar to that of Sam Beam from Iron & Wine.  And with that in mind, it’s easy to imagine that this is what Iron & Wine would have ended up sounding like, to some extent, had Beam not lost his way in 2007, and subsequently never found it.

So it is With Us is, I dare say, opens up as a big, jaunty record; Horse Feathers have come a long way from the minimal, stark arrangements found on their debut, and on House With No Home.  The first three tracks alone are incredibly catchy, playful, and rollicking, and the production values are alarmingly high.

That jaunty vibe, however, is not carried throughout the record—the sequencing is frontloaded with its more accessible material, shifting into slower and heavier tracks as it progresses, specifically by the time it arrives at its conclusion: the hard hitting percussion and anthemic qualities of  “The Knee” are then juxtaposed against the slow burning, wandering final track, “What We Become.”

As a whole, this record, much like countless others released in 2014, is not unlistenable; however, because of my total lack of interest in this band at this point, it’s not the kind of album I see myself returning to much. And not to sell the band short or anything, because there are some gorgeous arrangements on So it is With Us, specifically the “big” sounding refrain dripping with gorgeous strings on “Small Melody.” Horse Feathers are at their best and most sincere when they dial back the “fun” and turn of the “sad,” which is what made their first two records worthwhile listens. It’s the downcast folk on songs like “What We Become,” and “Why Do I Try” that make them two of the most effective of the bunch.

Maybe it was because I was only listening to So it is With Us because I needed something to review since there has been a bit of a lull lately with content on this blog; maybe it was because I was only really half listening to this record while my wife watched The Elephant Man—but the only lyrics that stuck out to me were the opening lines of “What We Become”: It’s not we what we became, but what we become, It’s not all of the parts or the sum.

And maybe of all the lyrics out of these ten songs, those were the ones that are supposed to resonate most with a listener. They certainly are (probably) the most self-aware.

Horse Feathers, as a band, obviously continue to do something “right.” They release a record every two years, and they tour regularly in support of those albums, so that leads me to believe they have a fan base that continues to support them; and more importantly, a fan base that has grown with them as the band turned from a three-piece that worked within relatively stark confines, into an outfit that continues to expand beyond the boundaries they set for themselves.  

Not what they became, but what they become.