For an album titled Cynic’s New Year, Horse Feathers’ latest release shouldn’t be this uplifting—I blame the banjo.
Horse Feathers are more than your average cutesy folk group. It’s difficult to rise to recognition in Portland’s folk scene, where such acts are a dime a dozen. Nonetheless, the group has managed to make a name for themselves as Portland’s shining knight of slow-coustic folk. Horse Feathers has been busy since their 2006 debut, Words Are Dead. Cynic’s New Year marks their fourth release in 6 years, and the group has fine-tuned their sound into a trademark. With lyrics that address the themes of loneliness, lost friendship and death, this album is certainly depressing. But thanks to the multi-layered, uplifting instrumentals, it avoids the sappiness you might expect. The band’s instrumental riffs dominate the record, especially those of the banjo and violin. Each song presents a different setting for these two to stand out, or better yet, synthesize. “Last Waltz” elegantly progresses from a violin solo to an orchestral collective including banjo, cymbals, piano and an additional violin. Lead singer Justin Ringle’s vocals make a smooth landing onto the instrumental runway; they’re gentle enough to maintain presence without overpowering the background ensemble.
Ringle makes a stronger appearance in “Pacific Bray,” a song that tells a story about death. With repeated references to washed up bodies on the beach, the lyrics are by no means happy, but the song is held afloat with the same reassuring melodies heard throughout the album. Classical piano and a harp-like banjo cradle Ringle’s unfiltered voice in “Fire to Fields.” The song builds with the addition of a strong violin and plateaus nicely before the instruments secede. The song ends just as it started: its warm piano and its ephemeral banjo complement Ringle’s refrain. Likewise, each track on the album reflects the cyclical progression of a human life. With their polished fourth record, Horse Feathers have proven themselves as worthy contenders in their genre. Cynic’s New Year exhibits the band’s darkest persona yet, but lighthearted instrumentals and Ringle’s temperate voice stave off depression.