On their third LP, Thistled Spring, Horse Feathers build on the Northwestern folk of their previous two efforts, although they add a slightly fuller sound into the mix. Don’t get me wrong, the simplicity of Justin Ringle’s songs still captures your attention, but the band is bigger both literally and in sound. The once duo is now a strong four piece. This progression has probably come from the passing of time and experience on the road. For example, I saw Horse Feathers two times last year at SXSW and during both of their sets the band had to battle loud guitars from an adjacent stage. They hardly let the screeching guitars affect them and seemed to play with more fire as each song progressed.
Thistled Spring is an appropriate title for the album considering the way the songs grow with each banjo pluck and mandolin flourish. I’m not sure what part of the year the band recorded but it seems like the sun was probably shining, which as we all know is a rare occurrence in Portland. Many of the songs rely on tempo changes and crescendos to convey a sense of urgency or passion. My attention was immediately caught by the standout track, "Cascades." The song starts slowly and builds with each passing verse and vocal harmony, ending with violin and cello interplay. "Vernonia Blues" is sure to be a crowd pleaser in a live setting, allowing each of the musicians to let loose and show some folk aggression. As with their previous albums, the banjo plays a leading role in most of the songs, adding dramatics and providing the backbone when the string section takes the spotlight.
Ringle’s vocals work perfectly with Thistled Spring’s instrumentation. Soft and delicate at times, I found myself not listening to his words but taking his voice as another instrument in the ensemble. It was a nice change of pace especially as an avid folk and singer-songwriter listener who sometimes over-analyzes lyrics. The album’s closer, "Heaven’s No Place," allows Justin to really show how talented he is as a singer as he reaches a volume and octave that makes you take notice. The song is a fitting end to the album, evoking the feeling of night fall on a cool spring day.
I tend to think of bands by their regions and Horse Feathers is a great musical representation of the Northwest. Many bands and songwriters try to capture the Oregon landscape or environment but few can pull it off. Thistled Spring is a great representation of the Pacific Northwest from one of the most consistent bands the region has produced over the last few years.
Thistled Spring will be released on April 20th by Kill Rock Stars.