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Horse Feathers: Soothing Sounds for Summer

Maija Gustin | Monday, April 26, 2010

Portland-based indie folk band Horse Feathers is one of those bands you really should know. They stopped in South Bend Friday to play a concert at Subkirke, the South Bend Christian Reformed Church’s concert venue, for a small but enthusiastic audience. They are currently on tour promoting their newest album, “Thistled Spring.”

Perhaps most comparable to a band like Iron & Wine, Horse Feathers specializes in that type of melodic indie rock that seems most appropriate for listening to in a serene meadow. They use guitars, pianos and drums just like everyone else, but also feature a cello, some violins, banjos and even a saw.

Subkirke is a small venue, located inside the church. The band played by the altar, but the sound quality was great and the setting was incredibly intimate. It was perfect for both Horse Feathers and their impressive opening act Caroline Smith and The Good Night Sleeps.

Caroline Smith, a singer and songwriter from Minnesota, came only with her band’s bassist, but put on a really great show. She sounds like a mix between Joanna Newsom and Florence of Florence + The Machine. The duo’s live set was excellent. Their harmonies were tight and they played a broad range of songs, including a Joanna Newsom cover, which showed an impressively talented young band.

Horse Feathers played a great set, featuring both songs old and new. They are of that impressive breed of bands that truly sounds so much better live than on record. That is because, aside from being incredibly talented musicians, the passion in their music is palpable in person. Lead singer/guitarist Justin Ringle is mesmerizing, but backing members Sam Cooper, Nathan Crockett and Catherine Odell take his emotional guitar tunes to the next level, always adding new layers to their songs, each playing several instruments in any given song. Highlights from the set include old songs “Curs in the Weeds,” “Falling Through the Roof” and “Finch on Saturday,” and new songs from “Thistled Spring,” “Belly of June” and “Cascades.”

“Thistled Spring,” though similar in tone to previous Horse Feathers albums, feels different nonetheless, probably due to the fact that it is the first album recorded by the current foursome of Horse Feathers. Though Justin Ringle has been with Horse Feathers from the start, other band members have come and gone, with Ringle, Cooper, Crockett and Odell as its current incarnation. If anything, “Thistled Spring” feels more ambitious than past albums. That is not to say it’s better, but there is a growth and maturity in the sound of the band.

The album opens with its title song “Thistled Spring.” It is a beautiful, sweeping piece that really displays the sound of the violin and cello. A great start to a great album.
“Starving Robins” immediately changes the tone of the album, focusing more on the guitar, banjo and drums and picking up the pace of the album. “Belly of June” is the lead single from “Thistled Spring,” and it picks up well where “Starving Robins” left off. It’s another great upbeat tune, perfect for summer listening at the beach.

“Cascades” takes the pace back again as a beautiful ballad featuring a saw. “The Drought” has some kind of Spanish inspired mandolin going on and is a nice change of pace from the typical Horse Feathers sound. “The Widower” is more of the band’s typical slow ballad, but it is easily one of the most beautiful songs on the album. “Thistled Spring” closes much the same way that it opened, with the slow melodic song “Heaven’s No Place.” It is one of the best examples of Ringle’s great vocals and features all that is best about Horse Feathers, incorporating several different instruments and changing throughout.

“Thistled Spring” is a great album by a small indie band that will hopefully start to get more attention and recognition for their talents. There seems to be more in “Thistled Spring” that will appeal to a broader audience, so hopefully this is the band’s chance to really make their presence known. It is also perfect music for a long night of studying for finals or for a calm summer day at the beach.

Although the album, and really any other Horse Feathers CD, is definitely worth picking up, if the opportunity to see them perform live ever presents itself, take it. Their awesome album cannot do their live performance justice.


 3 1/2 Shamrocks

Contact Maija Gustin at mgustin@nd.edu