[SUBDUED CRAFTSMANSHIP] Horse Feathers is a band of subtleties. Creating a rich sonic space using soft arrangements and minimalist instrumentation is quite a feat. Yet, the Portland band's fourth album, Cynic's New Year, is swarming with delicate musical conversations. Violinist Nathan Crockett and cellist Catherine Odell's sweetly talking strings are careful not to overpower singer-songwriter Justin Ringle's creaky voice and crisp acoustic guitar. Horn, woodwind, bells, upright bass, piano and banjo sneakily fill the spaces in between, and percussion makes its presence known only when it needs to. The instruments coax as much as they pull, guiding forward while appropriately framing through omission.
The style risks being passively dismissed as melancholy, pretty songs filled with jumbled familiarity. Some people might skip through the disc before soaking it all in. Horse Feathers' new disc doesn't strike with obvious leaps and bounds, but the meticulous compositions in Cynic's New Year encourage active listening. Even Ringle's mumbling vocals demand a closer lean-in. Those with the patience for it discover a 12-track collection that's neither neglected nor overworked; one that's packed with enough understated variety that it leaves listeners wanting more.
Lyrically, Ringle continues oblique explorations of seasons, passing time, and Mother Nature. He sings of sun and storms and the realities of the Pacific Northwest's unabated rain. The standout track "Fit Against the Country," a dialogue between a marching beat and a surrendering chorus, describes banded working men and women who are tired yet relentless. Ringle utters, "But nearly every day we earn a lower wage/ Does it tell you what we're made of, or are we just what we're paid?/ It's a hard country we made."
Even with the painfully relatable imagery, the hopeful and serene melodies provide enough sunshine to soak through the gray—Horse Feathers is never dark enough to depress, but never bright enough to blind.
SEE IT: Horse Feathers plays the Aladdin Theater, 3017 SE Milwaukie Ave., on Saturday, April 21. $15 advance, $18 day of show. All ages (minors must be accompanied by a parent).