Justin Ringle has successfully brought back baroque music. His band, Horse Feathers, was at The Drake Hotel last night, and they turned out a pure, unrefined performance, without going down the gimmick-laden road that some foot-stomping, hand-clapping folk outfits have travelled too often.
The Drake’s dimly-lit Underground, scattered with scenesters, perfectly housed Ringle’s marked, icy, spectral voice. It’s for that very reason that the Portland, Oregon band has the potential to reach the same level of notoriety as Justin Vernon or Sam Beam — who, like Ringle, use vocals like an instrument all on its own.
Though Ringle leads the band through hushed falsettos and cavernous melodies, he was careful not to tread on the star of the show: the strings. Whereas quintessential band formation sees most lead singers front and centre, last night he nestled off to the side, orbiting around the seated violinist and fiddler who shone on centre stage. Ringle struck a balance between being understated, and at the same time, confident. So the swelling richness and clarity of the strings were simply beautiful, echoing the new direction the band has taken on the latest album.
Cynic’s New Year, which was released on Kill Rock Stars earlier this spring, signals, as its title would suggest, a fresh start. It’s been two years since Thistled Spring, and the latest effort can certainly be thought of as the musings of a cynic. Instead of the Americana-tinged verses we’re used to from the world-weary wordsmith, Ringle’s lyrics are now weighted with gloom. And perhaps that is another reason why The Drake’s Underground was so fitting a space.
Mirroring the arrangement of Cynic’s New Year, Horse Feathers eased the crowd in with minimalistic cuts such as “A Heart Arcane,” then ramped it up with the swooping single, “Fit Against the Country,” along with the warming orchestration of “Where I’ll Be.”
As evidenced by the smaller-than-expected turnout at The Drake last night, Horse Feathers offer a sound that takes time to dawn on listeners. They’ve unapologetically painted portraits of graying landscapes; fusing elements of classical, folk and roots for one brilliantly mellow cadence.
Music purists: catch these guys while they’re still playing half-full basement bars — before those days are over.
Sabrina Nanji is a Toronto-based writer devoted to the underground music beat. She has also dabbled in reporting on the city’s street style and local politics, but her true expertise (though she’s reluctant to admit it) lies in the world of Star Wars trivia nights. Follow her on Twitter here.