Pure Post-Postpunk for Then People

Washington City Paper | June 2, 2006
Feathers, a large and mostly acoustic new-folk outfit, is unlikely to cause any meltdowns whatsoever. Singer/multi-instrumentalist Meara O’Reilly eschews any talk of Feathers’ forebears, saying instead that she and the rest of this Brattleboro, Vt., octet are simply inspired by one another. Sitar player Greg Petrovato claims that, for his part, he’s ignorant of current trends—which is odd, given that two of he and O’Reilly’s bandmates, Kyle Thomas and Asa Irons, moonlight in Witch, a fashionable doom-metal act that also includes Dinosaur Jr. leader J Mascis.

Even so, Feathers’ first widely available full-length, a reissue of a self-titled vinyl-only LP, does indeed smack of self-imposed exile. Much of that has to do with Thomas, an elfin-voiced vocalist who sounds like Marc Bolan la-la-la-ing his way through a bad head cold. Perhaps because his reedy vocal presence is so distinctive, Thomas, in contrast to Baird, evokes no period more than the one we’re living through right now. That’s not to say that he and his fellow Feathers vocalists come across as up-to-the-minute on such hippified songs as “Silverleaves in the Air of Starseedlings” and “Old Black Hat With a Dandelion Flower.” They just don’t sound like they’re swiping anyone else’s old black hat with a dandelion flower.

Instrumentally, too, the band projects a vibe that’s downright isolationist. Though electric guitars sometimes ring out, much of the consistently excellent Feathers could be rendered with whatever might be lying around your average mountaintop home—exactly the setting in which Irons says he lives. Acoustic guitars and hand drums perform much of the heavy lifting, of course. But there is also a toy xylophone (“Ulna”), some sort of bell or chime (“Past the Moon”), and a banjo with questionable intonation (“Van Rat”). That the tape hisses, bugs buzz, and various band members whistle at random is hardly indicative of any sort of lo-fi ideology. In this case, you may very well be able to judge a record by its smiling-bohemians-gathered-’round-a-campfire cover.

Obviously, it takes more than a yurt in the sticks to make good folk music. And Dylan, like so many of his ’60s peers, lived in New York City when he was getting his start. Thomas & Co., however, have achieved some degree of ur-folk purism by doing things the old-fashioned way: using blackout-proof instruments to entertain themselves. That might explain why Feathers ends with “Come Around,” an honest-to-goodness all-hands-on-deck singalong. “So come around, come around/Feel the air on your cheek,” the band sings on the chorus. “We’ve only so long before our heavens descend/So come around, come around, come around.”

Many of those who supposedly booed Dylan would no doubt applaud the song’s inclusive—not to mention somewhat-throwback—sentiment. That’s the kind of approval that no progressive in her right mind would claim as a badge of honor. But perhaps freak folk isn’t really a progressive’s game. On some level, it’s supposed to be a throwback. Unlike the post-postpunk it’s supplanted as the hipster’s music of choice, it’s not just a simulation of a previous era—it’s a simulation of a previous era that was itself the simulation of a previous era. In other words: These days, a bunch of smiling bohemians gathered ’round a campfire is about as authentic as you can hope for.

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