Release Date: Apr 17, 2012
Record label: Kill Rock Stars
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock, Alternative Singer/Songwriter, Indie Folk
Justin Ringle and his band of merry musicians collectively known as Horse Feathers have put forth a very inspiring baroque pop album for their fourth release. Cynic’s New Year is filled with layer upon layer of instruments, allowing the band a grander scale that presents the band as a happy-go-lucky Oregon band. Yet, if you listen beyond the slides, horns and whistles and bells, there is a murky undertone hiding in Ringle’s lyrics.
The moniker “Horse Feathers” seems to fit the music of Justin Ringle and Nathan Crockett’s latest album pretty well: wispy ornamentation disguising the uneasy power beneath. Lighthearted melodies and delicate instrumentations mask Cynic’s New Year’s darker lyrics, adding a layer of complexity that requires multiple listens. Following the fear that comes with the realization you are powerless against your own aging, the album allows us to approach the terrifying ideas of the uncontrollable with the gentle hand-holding of Americana.
In the Chinese zodiac, 2012 is known as the Year of the Dragon. The dragon is the most auspicious and powerful of the 12 signs of the zodiac, the only sign representing a mythological creature, one associated with high energy and prosperity. The dragon is a symbol of superior control and is also said to be a good symbol that represents change and mobility.
Time was when folksy, bearded fellows fingerpicking their beat-up acoustic guitars were a dime a dozen. They roamed free over the hills and forests of the Pacific Northwest and among the concrete environs of Silver Lake in Los Angeles, heeding the call of the soft-spoken wild made so attractive by Sam Beam. Sometime over the past few years, though, the prevailing winds shifted, and it seems like only a few genuinely rustic-sounding acoustic outfits are still around.
On the fourth Horse Feathers album, ringleader Justin Ringle expands his art-folk vision into something simultaneously ambitious and methodically crafted, creating a kind of chamber Americana sound in the process. Ringle's aesthetic home base is an acoustic-oriented singer/songwriter approach that combines lyrical erudition with organic accompaniment, à la Iron & Wine or Will Oldham, with his clear, gentle vocals often coming off like a close cousin of Iron & Wine main man Sam Beam. But while the core of the sound on Cynic's New Year is the interaction between Ringle and violinist Nathan Crockett, the singer/songwriter drafted in a wide array of players to contribute to these tracks, ending up with a kind of revolving-door cast of characters that adds up to an 11-strong ensemble.
Musically and geographically, Justin Ringle is far removed from the Appalachian region that birthed so many of his folk forebears. Born in Idaho, he moved even further west to Portland, Oregon, where he formed Horse Feathers in 2004. Embracing a somber sound that proved an ideal setting for his slightly androgynous vocals, he managed to conceive his own personal idea of string-band folk, one that disregarded the technical prowess and lively performance style of East Coast strains.
It’s unfortunate that Horse Feathers‘ Justin Ringle never gets lumped in with the rest of the indie folk A-list, among names like Robin Pecknold, Justin Vernon, or Sam Beam. The four records of breezy, ramshackle Americana he’s released with the Portland outfit have been every bit as good as second-tier folk acts such as Bowerbirds and, at their best, have graced a similar strata of rustic beauty that’s been the trademark of bands like Fleet Foxes. This fourth LP once again comes close to making that leap, but ultimately it falls just short of the mark.
While many modern folk bands are adding excessive instrumentation and recruiting more players than the max capacity of an elevator, Horse Feathers have reined things in. The Portland, OR band's fourth album, Cynic's New Year, is a full-band affair but often feels like a solo venture for frontman Justin Ringle – the songs sink or swim under his watch. Opener "A Heart Arcane" is warm and inviting, a dead ringer for Canadian counterparts Great Lake Swimmers.