The Exquisite Winter Blahs of Horse Feathers

It's only September, but all the leaves are already brown for Horse Feathers. Winter is manifest in the trio's second album, House With No Home, a collection rife lyrically with snowflakes and slate-gray skies looming over equally chilling folk arrangements augmented with chamber-style strings. Singer Justin Ringle often muffles his words or loses them altogether (as though a wool scarf were covering his mouth) as he trudges through cadences reminiscent of Ryan Adams or Iron & Wine's Sam Beam, delicately dotting his stanzas with multi-dimensional characters weathering the winters of their existence.

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Which is more enriching than it sounds. Although the setting has shifted to the rural Pacific Northwest, the storytelling here is akin to author Russell Banks's bleak yet poignant portraits of lower-class life in frozen New Hampshire. Banjo-driven "Working Poor" is most explicit in this task: "We all bend/We all break/We all forfeit what we make." House resonates most when it focuses on more universal themes of alienation—losing a child, failure that runs in the family, adultery, obscenity, and, of course, seasonal depression—and lays them bare for dissemination. Without the lyric sheet handy, finding some sunshine in Peter and Heather Broderick's expert arrangements is possible, if barely: As Ringle's backing corps, they break from their cool elegance only once, for a few tumultuous notes sliding out of tune amid cymbal crashes in "Albina," perhaps an unhappy ode to gentrification. As quickly as this strident moment appears, though, it's gone. Meanwhile, Ringle's closest approximation of a lyrical wink shows up in "Helen," wherein he turns the prospect of feeling better into an artistic dilemma: "What will I write when I'm fine?" In the meantime, he certainly won't run out of material.

 
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