Horse Feathers: Words Are Dead
I would probably never have heard this album if the eMusic subscriber who signs herself “flamgirlant” (get it?—I’m a bit obtuse sometimes and had to ask) had not persuasively and evocatively reviewed it under the title “Your Winter Album”. And although I’ve lived almost my entire life in a hot climate where snow is rare, I think I know what she means. The basic sound makes me think of bare branches against the sky, spare to the point of being stark, consisting mostly of guitar and one or more bowed strings (violin and cello, I think, although flamgirlant says there is a viola as well). There’s no bass, which increases the effect of thin sharp lines. There are only occasional touches of percussion. The principal singer’s voice is high-pitched and plain, fading into a whisper at times. Some of the song titles conjure lean American images: “Hardwood Pews,” “Finch on Saturday,” “Dustbowl.”
Not only the wintry quality, but something else about this music takes me back to the one winter I spent in a cold climate, Denver in 1970-71. That was an odd moment, when the wildest heights and depths of the late ‘60s leveled off for a while, and hippies were talking about moving to the country. There was a desire to return to the essentials, and a burgeoning of acoustic music. Although the two young men who mainly comprise Horse Feathers were presumably not yet born at the time, there’s something timeless in their music that would have been perfectly appropriate then. It makes me think in particular of a couple of hippie emporiums, one of them a music shop, if I remember correctly, with heavy unfinished wood furnishings and the smell of patchouli everywhere; guitars and banjos hanging on the walls; jeans, flannel, corduroy, leather; beards on the men and long dresses and long hair on the women; maybe even a baby appearing here and there.
But whereas the acoustic music of that time and place tended toward the John Denver commercial-romantic mode, Horse Feathers has a Gothic streak, and I don’t think you’re likely ever to hear one of their angular melodies on your local pop music station. I can’t understand more than about half the lyrics, but themes of mortality and melancholy seem to predominate. Imagine a combination of, say, Pure Prairie League and Nick Drake, and you’re in the general territory. It doesn’t sound remotely like Drake, and it’s American to the bone, but like Drake’s music much of it strikes you as both new and inevitable; it also carries a similar sense of privacy and introspection.
There is, in short, a touch of greatness here. They’re not there yet, and maybe this is as far as they go—sometimes a band has only one good statement in them, and there’s no shame in that; I’m grateful for this one and will probably be listening to it for a long time. Musically the album is simply brilliant, but in my view it would have benefited from more fully developed lyrics (and I need a lyric sheet). And the presence of certain sexual crudities in the song “Walking and Running” is, in my view, an aesthetic misstep, although if I understand the import of the song—a sort of lament and remonstrance about sexual promiscuity—the writer(s) could make a good case for their inclusion.