Though it’s an unusual complaint to level against an album of ornamental folk music, Horse Feathers’ latest full-length record for Kill Rock Stars, Thistled Spring, distinctly feels overly stylized at the expense of any real substance. Typically, the “style over substance” charge is more properly directed at snappily dressed, bandwagon-hopping bands attempting to capitalize on the fickle whims of the listening public. It certainly seems ridiculous to say the same thing about a group armed with a batch of acoustic instruments and a nature fetish, but that description is started to fit an increasing number of bands. It’s only natural to develop a healthy dose of skepticism towards the genre in order to prevent less sincere musicians from affecting this sound, believing it to be a surefire ticket to perceived authenticity.
I’m not accusing Horse Feathers of being insincere about their appreciation for folk music, nor questioning the validity of the genre itself (and yes, I’m aware that it sure as hell sounds like I am). Furthermore, I’m not arguing that there is no way to derive any pleasure from Thistled Spring. I happen to have hit my exhaustion point for this sort of thing. Everyone should have a few records of vaguely transcendental folk tunes. I have more than my share and I need no more.
But that’s more of an indictment of a musical style than this particular record. The primary issue with Thistled Spring lies in the way Horse Feathers indulge in every obvious, tried and true folk-ism you could imagine. The earnestness of the band is apparent enough to avoid being questioned. It’s Horse Feathers’ methods that frequently sink Thistled Spring to the level of a thousand other folk albums set far from conventional society.
There are elements of Thistled Spring that uniformly work. The omnipresent banjo, cello, and violins are usually welcome, even if they are unapologetically slathered on. The seeming purpose of this constant barrage of strings both august and twangy is to make up for the general weakness of the songwriting on display. Opener “Thistled Spring” typifies this issue; the song is effectively an exercise built around one root chord, leaving the audience feeling like they’re listening to a stagnant, half-formed idea. Follower “Starving Robins” similarly spins its wheels, relying on the stringed instruments and some spare drum work to imply dynamic shifts that barely register. It certainly doesn’t help that lead singer Justin Ringle’s voice is like warm milk; perfectly palatable and unassuming, but lacking in intensity and liable to put you to sleep.
Horse Feathers manage to pull off a minor mid-album resurgence, bolstered by a set of strong melodies on “Cascade” and “This Bed,” the former stark and melancholy, the latter optimistic and graceful. Stray moments of interest pop up elsewhere. “The Drought” builds to a pair of identical but strong climaxes in which the cello in particular gets a real chance to shine. Otherwise, Thistled Springs drifts off in fairly formulaic fashion. “Vernonia Blues,” as the title implies, is folk-blues by the numbers, and “The Widower” never reaches the heights implied by its promisingly uneasy early section. Lyrically, Thistled Spring hits the all of the buttons you’d expect from an album with such a title and a band with a name like Horse Feathers. Needless to say, there’s plenty of glum musings set against a woodsy backdrop with every image evoking a feeling of meditative loneliness. Again, Ringle and company truly seem sincere, but they’re burrowing into a well-explored field.