“Altamont” by Horse Feathers

47. Song No. 272: “Altamont,” Horse Feathers
Appreciation, 2018

There’s something special about a band you can watch evolve from album to album and still love no matter how they sound, and also slowly discover that practically everyone else whose musical taste matters has been listening to them this whole time, too.

Ages ago, a friend burned me a copy of Thistled Spring, which remains my favorite Horse Feathers album. The thing about Horse Feathers, though, is that their sound didn’t really markedly change ’til Appreciation, which I didn’t even realize existed until another friend suggested I check this band out and I proceeded to have my face melted right off with how much a folkish band can rock the hell out.

I read a review of this album that said something about it solidifying Horse Feathers’ evolution from less Avett Brothers to more Decemberists, which I can more or less agree with. But I think their evolution actually mirrors the Decemberists’ eerily well, from quiet, folksy beginnings to lovingly well-produced, layered and lush songs that are both a departure from and inevitable maturation of their unassuming origins.

There is still a prominent string section, but it’s more fleshed out and harmonious than plucking out the melody all themselves. The vocals are still gorgeous but seem more assertive and grander than they were before. There’s less of a delicacy there now. And the music still sounds like the languid, humid summers of your first real love, with steam fogging the edges into some gossamer thing generally idealized and idyllic and genially warm.

What really stood out to me with Appreciation is how many songs sound like individual presences rather than movements escorting you through a cohesive musical landscape. Horse Feathers is one of those bands I love but tend to have favorite albums more so than favorite songs (though “Belly of June” is a prime and achingly beautiful exception to the rule), so having all these songs competing with each other right out of the gate was a lot of kinetics that is extra attention-grabbing when it comes from such an unexpected source.

And while another song had me ready to fall in love with this album from its first strains, “Altamont” was what made it happen (though the first half of the album set up the assist so well it deserves plenty of credit in its own right). I have no idea why and barely even heard the lyrics the first few times I listened to it, but I was smitten with this song from the outset. And it set the tone beautifully for a sixth album that has all the raw intensity of a budding musician hungry for a foothold and the restrained, expertly metered-out hooks of a master artist.

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