Words Are Dead
ustin Ringle almost seems designed to curry comparisons with a few near-universally lionized vocalists, pitched neatly between Iron & Wine's Sam Beam and departed icon Nick Drake (albeit the Drake of “Know” as opposed to “Pink Moon”). Given the music that Ringle and Peter Broderick make, sparse yet melodious acoustic idylls that evoke ambling along with a friend through the last warm days before autumn, the whole project of describing them could easily end there. But I want to introduce another singer into the conversation: Hamilton Leithauser.
The Walkmen don't sound at all like Horse Feathers, I know. There is little chance of anyone mistaking Leithauser's punk Dylan whine/sneer for Ringle's much more pleasant tones. But both walk the line separating the comprehensible from the teasingly evocative; if you focus on the songs on Words Are Dead you can probably make out what's being said, but just as with A Hundred Miles Off a large part of the appeal is that both leads have deliveries strong and individual enough that the literal meaning of the words is beside the point. These voices are never just “another instrument” the way unusual or obscure vocals often are; they are the center of the music but have a power that goes beyond the articulation of language. Both sing with their hearts in their throats, and what they say is far less important than the way they grab you while they're singing it.
Which is why, despite stylistic similarities, neither Beam nor Drake are actually good comparisons. They are/were both primarily performers of stories and language and while Horse Feathers aren't singing nonsense, until you get used to Ringle and/or resort to the included lyric sheet it's a performance of effect, a kind of audible Impressionism. There are stories being told, but the only ones you need to know to fall in love with the music here are conveyed in the sound, not sense, of the voice. As with most lyrics the ones here are mainly functional, not coming alive until they are sung, but few could sing them with the impact that Ringle does.
That's not to discount Broderick's contribution; the multi-instrumentalist provides much of the melodic elaboration and color that make Horse Feathers' debut so much more than just another collection of reflective acoustic ditties. His violin, in particular, elevates the likes of “Finch on Saturday” and “Mother's Sick” from pleasing into subtly amazing. Broderick tracked down Ringle after hearing a couple of songs the latter had recorded in a friend's basement, and from the moment the opening “Hardwood Pews” blooms from an already-great showcase for vocal and acoustic into the softly gorgeous violin/saw duet it briefly becomes you can only marvel at how well they fit together.
The opacity of Ringle's voice combined with Broderick's deft touches mean that the brief Words Are Dead works best not as a collection of songs but as an overarching feeling, an experience that's as hazy as you'd like it to be. As with a lot of pretty, quiet music there's something almost retiring about Horse Feathers but there is also enough beauty that those willing to investigate are amply rewarded. The title of this album is an apt one; but while the words are dead the feeling remains, strong as ever.