If Cormac McCarthy rewrote Little House on the Prairie, Horse Feathers could provide a perfect soundtrack to the many film adaptations sure to follow. Bleak lyrics are nestled among a bevy of folk instruments, including plucky strings, driving cello and a particularly feisty banjo. With song titles like “Dust Bowl,” “Hardwood Pews” and “Curs in the Weeds” it’s easy to get lost in the old-timey feel of this seemingly simplistic folk group.
Horse Feathers was founded by singer/songwriter Justin Ringle in 2004. A native Idahoan who previously gigged with rock bands, Ringle moved to Portland to pursue a more acoustic sound. Ringle met instrumentalist Peter Broderick, and in 2006 Horse Feathers released their first album, Words Are Dead. Now, two albums and a whole new lineup later, Ringle’s guitar and unique vocals are still leading the way on the band’s most recent release, Cynic’s New Year.
Layers upon layers of folk instrumentals often disguise the stark tension in Ringle’s lyrics. On the surface you hear pure, string-driven Americana with a pleasant, lilting voice that dips and soars among the instruments. Actively listen to the lyrics, and certain phrases will come to the surface that underscore the frivolity, grounding the ethereal lullabies in gritty reality and drawing attention to the minor key.
The most upbeat track on Cynic’s New Year is “Fit Against the Country,” on the surface a plucky folk ballad that might play while Laura Ingalls chases her stray bonnet down the dusty wagon train. The chorus, however, reveals some strife: “Every night we all go to a house we’ll never own/every night we are tired, we’ve been worked to the bone.” Whether it’s a timeless reference or a timely one, Horse Feathers and their intra-band struggle between sound and content might take you by surprise.
Horse Feathers with Frank Fairfield play 9 pm Friday, Dec. 14, at WOW Hall; $12 adv., $14 door.