Album review: Words Are Dead by Horse Feathers

It seems that the alternative folk scene is getting more attention than ever before. The likes of Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes have stormed the airwaves over the last few years, but there have been a plethora of other bands making strides in this genre, among them Justin Ringle, better known as the brains behind Horse Feathers.

Ringle’s sound, like many of the alt-folk groups we hear, is based upon soaring vocals and finger-picked acoustic guitars. Ringle’s voice is somewhat reminiscent of Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam, a combination of dark, emotional lows and potent, powerful highs. His guitar-work is by turns intricate and simple, varying its tone and timbre to add variation and intrigue to this record, his 2006 debut record. Words Are Dead is an album whose changes are subtle but effective, from the delicate picking of the opening track Hardwood Pews to the lonesome banjo of final track Mother’s Sick.

Horse Feathers are not a well-known act by any means, but this album is a brilliant starting point for them – ‘them’ since Ringle is accompanied by Peter Broderick here – and they have since had two studio releases, House With No Home and Thistled Spring.

This record, unlike many of its folk compatriots, is not going for the complex harmonies of Bowerbirds or Bon Iver, preferring a single voice evoking the emotion of the song. This enables Ringle to make these songs more personal, almost conversational in tone, making each track intimate, his communicative voice superb at drawing in the listener. Sacrificing complexity for simplicity is not a method that always works on Words Are Dead, but more often than not it’s a successful measure.

Ringle does occasionally stray from his simple roots, offsetting his solo vocals and often lone guitar with the inclusion of stringed instruments, which far from adding saccharine emotion so common among string-accompanied music, makes the songs sound organic, even rustic, and makes the record as comfortable as a well-worn chair or battered trainers; this style lets you sink into the music itself, a nice feeling.

However, despite its high points, Words Are Dead does have a slightly repetitive quality at times, perhaps due to the fact that it’s a debut record and Ringle is still creating and augmenting his sound, as yet uncertain what his style is going to be. A lovely record to spend a summer’s day listening to, Words Are Dead is not a classic, nor essential listening, but perhaps gives an indicator as to what Ringle can achieve. Certainly one for the alt-folk audience, and perhaps a gateway into the genre for those looking to explore something new. Good stuff.

Best tracks: Hardwood Pews, Falling Through The Roof, Finch on Saturday.

If you like this, you’ll also like: Iron & Wine – The Shepherd’s Dog, Bowerbirds – House of Diamonds, Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago.

Luke Grundy is a fervent assimilator of media living amid the bright lights of London, England. If he’s not watching films or listening to music, he’s probably asleep, eating or dead. An aspiring writer, journalist and musician, he is the creator of movie/music blog Odessa & Tucson and lives for epistemology.

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