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Thursday, June 1, 2006 03:26 am

All in the family

Feathers can crash at my pad whenever they like

Feathers Feathers (Gnomonsong)
What if the Manson Family had been less of a patriarchal death cult and more of a freeform collective? What if they’d shacked up in cool, reasonable Vermont instead of hotheaded California and collaborated on their own songs instead of parroting those of their rock-star-manqué leader? What if they’d spent more time ministering to their individual muses and less time embroidering their hair into an ornate allegorical vest for Charlie? What if they’d just listened to the Beatles and stopped short of transcribing Lennon/McCartney lyrics in the blood of a pregnant starlet and her entourage? Replace the Manson Family’s deranged zealotry with musical talent, and, my guess is, they’d sound a lot like Feathers, a coed psych-folk octet whose members proudly call themselves a family while letting their freak flags fly as high as Susan “Sadie” Atkins was when she named her kid Ze Zo Ze Cee Zadfrack. Feathers’ self-titled debut on Gnomonsong, the fledgling label founded by Andy “Vetiver” Cabic  and Devendra Banhart, is a study in communal music-making. In true hippie fashion, the members of Feathers prefer to go by first names only, there’s no obvious frontperson, and the liner notes don’t specify who played or wrote what. Most everyone sings, and the album (originally self-released on vinyl) was recorded in the blacklit bedroom of one of the members. And if the dig-our-groovy-threads CD cover isn’t enough to induce a flashback, check out these song titles: “Old Black Hat with a Dandelion Flower” and “Silverleaves in the Air of Starseedlings.” Stippled with sitars, recorders, violins, dulcimers, mandolins, harps, clarinets, and bongos, the CD sets up camp on the Arcadian terrain of such Brit-folk legends as Vashti Bunyan, the Incredible String Band, Steeleye Span, and early Marc Bolan (think Tyrannosaurus Rex, not T. Rex). If you listen closely, though, it’s not a total throwback: Behind the acoustic strum and patchouli-scented drone, you’ll find the glint of synthesizer, the flickering of electronic static. Although the impossibly fey “Past the Moon” and the overly long “Ibex Horn” bring out my inner Eric Cartman, most of the album’s eight tracks are so lovely and so lovingly arranged that to mock them just seems ignorant, like putting Drano in your doper roommate’s bong. Although such democratic ventures usually devolve into spotlight-jockeying chaos, Feathers’ songs are remarkably restrained. The members wisely await their turns, opting for subtlety and balance over anarchic cacophony. “Ulna,” a delicate waltz composed of drowsy acoustic guitar, crystalline vocalizing, and the barest hint of woodwind counterpoint, is the sonic counterpart to a Pre-Raphaelite painting; another waltz, “Come Around,” conflates its ivy-bedecked heroine with roses, mountains, and bracing breezes, creating a luscious verdancy that recalls the poetry of Christina Rossetti. Other songs are decidedly less wispy but no less well-crafted. The minor-key fantasy “Van Rat” opens with the chirring of crickets and then weaves toy pianos and acoustic guitars into a proggish tapestry of senseless stonerisms (something about monkeys and robot arms), random radio noise, and offkey whistling before unraveling in a twin-guitar freakout. Throughout the album, the vocal harmonies have a flower-child-like purity, and the lyrics, when they’re decipherable, seem as earnest as a pair of hemp sandals. As unbelievable as it might sound in these cynical, irony-addicted times, the overall tone is reverential, not parodic. To say that Feathers seems like a bunch of hippie longhairs is like saying Squeaky Fromme was an excellent embroiderer — indisputable and irrelevant. Yeah, the we’re-a-happy-family shtick will probably always come off as a tad creepy in these post-Manson times, but as long as they keep making pretty music (and until they start stabbing people), Feathers can crash at my pad whenever they like.
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