No one can accuse Justin Ringle of being an optimist. As the leader of Portland, Ore., folk outfit Horse Feathers, he's trawled in dark subject matter that recalls Southern gothic authors William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor. Words like "regret" and "shame" make regular appearances in his lyrics-- alongside references to hard church pews, blood-stained snow, and sinners who take human and animal forms.
Never judge an album by its cover art, unless that album was recorded by Horse Feathers. On 2008’s House with No Home, the band sketched a portrait of winter mornings and lonely northwestern nights using string arrangements and acoustic guitars in lieu of paint brushes. A literal portrait graced the cover, depicting the very same scene (snow-capped barn in a wooded clearing, mountain towering in the background, everything captured in hazy focus) that the album spent its time evoking.
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.
The title track kicks off Thistled Spring with a simple piano melody that builds to a gorgeous orchestral swell. The soulful but somber vocals of songwriter Jason Ringle further herald this song of wary rejuvenation. Horse Feathers' previous record, House With No Home, explored darker themes, but Thistled Spring seems to contend that the evidence for both loss and hope lie in the mundane, the hardly noticed.
Horses don’t have feathers. Duh. The name is a deliberate contradiction, much like a string quartet that plays rock music. But unlike the characters in the Marx Brothers movie that shares its name, the band called Horse Feathers doesn’t fumble around; their performance isn’t a comedy of errors.
The frostiness of winter can always bring out the worst in someone. Whether it’s a bad-tempered manner or worse, a chillingly harsh outlook, the winter time has the ability to change anyone. When you think about it, the same could be said about any of the seasons, even spring. And yet, when thinking of spring one sees the sun slowly beginning to shine more and more, the weather slowly beginning to heat up and the blistering snow, melting away.