[FOLK] Horse Feathers singer Justin Ringle has been compared to, by this writer's count, nine different vocalists, including the king of the whisper-thin croon, Nick Drake; political soul songwriter Tracy Chapman; and the Walkmen's indecipherable Hamilton Leithauser. The only thing more remarkable than the diversity of Ringle's supposed influences is the fact that his band, Horse Feathers, has received these flattering comparisons from national tastemakers like National Public Radio and indie-rock Web mecca Pitchfork in just the few weeks following the late-September release of its debut record, Words Are Dead
. In the scramble to make sense of the tremendously beautiful music of this year-old Portland duo, the powers that be have been forced to dig up an odd collection of songwriters that are comparable only in their ability to deliver devastatingly powerful vocal performances.
But for every comparison, there is a misdirection. The 25-year-old does have a whispered delivery, but his sense of melody is much more nuanced than Drake's; he shares Chapman's stirring rhythmic vocal delivery, but manages to remain fresh and bright throughout these songs, never overpowering them as Chapman often does; he does share an intensity with Leithauser, but Ringle never lets that intensity become the song, tending to let the intricate melodies and movements of Horse Feathers' living room orchestrations move his listener.
And then there is the one thing that Ringle has that none of these other songwriters have: the wondrous instrumental accompaniment of fellow Horse Feather Peter Broderick, a 19-year-old prodigy who accompanies Ringle's fingerpicked acoustic composition with banjo, mandolin, saw, cello, piano, viola, vocals and violin.
The two musicians met in 2005, soon after Ringle moved to Portland from Pullman, Wash., where he had played in a few bands, most notably Laserhawk with Talkdemonic drummer Kevin O'Connor. After taking a break from music and then suffering a heartbreak (recounted brutally in 'Walking & Running'), Ringle began playing open-mike nights at the Red & Black Cafe and the LaurelThirst Pub under the name Horse Feathers and recorded a rough demo in O'Connor's basement. That demo eventually made it into Broderick's hands, and the two musicians quickly became both bandmates and roommates.
Broderick has become something of a wunderkind in the local folk renaissance. The young musician has shared the stage on a regular basis with the great Nick Jaina, the lovely Laura Gibson, the impeccable Norfolk & Western and many more, but it's his performance in Horse Feathers where Broderick's tremendous musical ability shines, in a very subtle way. Clearly a master of most any instrument he plays, Broderick never overpowers Ringle. Rather, his instruments seem to play with Ringle's vocals, as on 'Blood on the Snow,' where Broderick's violin appears as a second voice, both highlighting the strained reach of the melody and supporting it. In this way, the two feel completely inseparable and powerful, their collective voice too potent to be compared to any single songwriter. This, rather, is music with the strength and beauty of Simon & Garfunkel. Add that one to the heap.
Horse Feathers celebrate the release of Words are Dead with Laura Gibson and Winter Stories at Holocene. 9 pm. $6. 21+. Also see Riff City, page 43.