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Horse Feathers - Appreciation Music Album Reviews

Horse Feathers - Appreciation Music Album Reviews
On Horse Feathers’ sixth album, their introverted persona has thawed, revealing a surprising affinity for the joy of Stax-era and country-fried soul.

Slowly, glacially, Horse Feathers’ music has turned outward. What began as Oregon songwriter Justin Ringle and violinist Peter Broderick’s hermetic take on Appalachian folk eventually blossomed out with the addition of a larger string ensemble. It became the quintessential sound of the band. Yet even when the group lightened the mood with electric guitars and lively percussion on 2014’s So It Is With Us, it was hard to shake the feeling that they were still singing primarily to themselves. But on Appreciation, Horse Feathers’ sixth full-length, that introverted persona has thawed, revealing a surprising affinity for the joy of both Stax-era soul and the country-fried sound of Doug Sahm and the Flying Burrito Brothers. While the looser grooves can deflate the tension, they also frame Ringle’s world-weariness in terms that are directed, finally, at us.

Horse Feathers’ transition to a full band is by no means novel among the folk revivalists who got their start in the aughts; Steve Gunn, Vetiver, and Devendra Banhart have followed similar trajectories. Yet unlike those artists, Horse Feathers have undergone a grand re-shuffling as well as an expansion. While the strings sometimes flutter a bit listlessly, they generally compliment J. Tom Hnatow’s basslines and Robby Cosenza’s spritely percussion. On single “Don't Mean to Pry,” violins arc overhead, reinforcing Cosenza’s lithe patterns. Later, standout track “Faultline Wall” utilizes glissandos with similar economy, accentuating the song’s underlying menace.

What’s most intriguing about Appreciation is just how well the fulsome songs suit Ringle’s voice. The jauntier the tune, the more he embraces a more sensual approach to his singing: We get flashes of John Fogerty, Sturgill Simpson’s rebel yell and, nestled in the melodies of “Born in Love,” a fully unexpected oooh that would make Josh Tillman proud. For the first time, he sounds like he’s actually having fun.

That doesn’t mean that he has abandoned his trademark cynicism. The strongest songs on Appreciation expand on the Springsteen-style populism that has long lurked in Ringle’s music. Songs here ring out with accounts of economic disenfranchisement and helplessness: “It’s not the drinking, but the worry that does you in,” he sings in the opening track, “Without Applause.” “Faultline Wall” delivers a bleak tale of the environmental and occupational hazards of mining and “Evictions” sums up the nightmare of West Coast gentrification, yet does so over a smoky waltz that leaves us unsure what mood Ringle is shooting for. Though the extroverted mood throughout Appreciation can feel a bit unsteady, closing track “On the Rise” drops the drums in favor of a string-centric arrangement that is, once again, quintessential Horse Feathers. But Justin Ringle delivers its optimistic titular lyric with newfound assertiveness; as a result, although deeply personal, it could just as easily allude to the unexpected success his band has found by finally embracing their own accessibility.

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