Ask just about any band, and they'll tell you they have no interest in making the same kind of record over and over again.
It's a natural way to feel. Try too hard to replicate early successes, and you'll be called stagnant. Also, circumstances change. Sometimes, life, love or loss make it impossible to revisit the same creative places.
Never mind most artists' innate desire to grow and explore new things.
For Justin Ringle, who'll bring his Portland folk-pop quartet Horse Feathers to Bend on Tuesday (see “If you go”), it was a little bit of each of those that informed “Thistled Spring,” the band's fine new album released earlier this year on the influential Kill Rock Stars label. (Tuesday's show kicks off the new PDXchange Program. For more on the series, see Page 4.)
“I kind of felt like I had two ... quiet records under my belt, and I had toured on those for a long time,” Ringle said last week in a telephone interview from somewhere in Kentucky.
“It's typically not that planned,” he said. “The music is just kind of what comes out, and it just so happened that some of (‘Thistled Spring') definitely has a different kind of energy to it than stuff from the past.”
To call Horse Feathers' first two albums “quiet” is like saying Portland is overcast in the winter. Both “Words Are Dead” (from 2006) and “House with No Home” (2008) gained attention and compliments from critics for their intimate, whispered folk tunes, highlighted by Ringle's gentle voice and memorable melodies, plus gorgeous chamber-style playing by violinist Peter Broderick and his sister, cellist Heather Broderick.
The Stylus online magazine praised the “sparse yet melodious acoustic idylls” that fill the debut, and the A.V. Club website described Horse Feathers' sophomore effort as “stately and melancholy.”
In the past couple of years, though, things have changed for Ringle.
He moved from one part of Portland to another. He changed band members; both Brodericks left the band, replaced by Nathan Crockett (violin), Catherine Odell (cello) and multi-instrumentalist Sam Cooper.
Then there's the confidence Ringle has gained in the years since he moved from Idaho to Portland and ditched rock bands in favor of acoustic music.
“Any types of changes you have in your life ... usually find their way into what you make. There's no way around it; even if you try for it to not be there, it will be there,” Ringle said. “I just tried to be sensitive to that, because my life's changed quite a bit ... and I tried to embrace some of those things that were happening in my life ... in the music. I think that's where the little evolution comes in (and) this record sounds different.”
Indeed, “Thistled Spring” is Horse Feathers' pop record, in a relative sense. Ringle's still a master of legato beauty, but one spin through lush songs such as “Belly of June,” “Starving Robins” and “Vernonia Blues” reveals a band that has stepped it up in terms of confidence, clarity and production.
“Thistled Spring” finds Ringle singing louder and more clearly. New instruments flutter about, giving the songs a pleasantly surprising heft. And, to put it simply, the whole record just sounds better.
Ringle acknowledges that things have changed on “Thistled Spring,” though he's quick to point out that he doesn't think “it sounds like it's from another planet.”
He's right. But it does sound like a big step for a band that has the kind of charm and substance to make a pretty big leap in terms of audience and exposure, especially if fans of Ringle's previous work are as willing to follow his muse as he is.
“Maybe people expected it to be super, super quiet or whatever, but I didn't want to live in that territory forever because I feel like doing something a little bit different gives me more license to do what I want to do in the future, as opposed to just putting out records with the same mood,” he said. “I just wanted to kind of try out some different things.”