Anybody who knows Jantzen knows that couldn’t be further from the reality, and “Feathers,” his first effort as Riley Jantzen and the Spirits, should dispel his scary-guy image for those who don’t. It’s a wonderfully intimate album lyrically, and musically enriched by his absurd skill as a player.
He’s credited as playing all the instruments, and his handling of the standards (piano, electric and acoustic guitar, and synthesizer) both invites you in close and dazzles with his dexterity. Subtle changes in volume of his guitar help to imagine him rocking back and forth inside some little shack of a studio somewhere that suddenly doesn’t seem so far away.
He’s really set himself apart as a singular figure in the Oklahoma music scene, capable of playing backup for anybody, as well as writing his own high-caliber material. This ability, coupled with his rough-hewn domestic songwriting themes (and even his voice at times) suggests Conor Oberst, once of Bright Eyes fame. Like Oberst, Jantzen’s definitely got the credibility and songwriting chops to mount a successful solo project. And he does.
“Sunday Morning” is the centerpiece here, a tough, hopeful, five-minute hand-washing of his conflict with religion. “My family’s got religion / But I’ve got silence and a pen,” he says, completely un-guilty of how he spends his time while others go to church. It sounds like his life has slowed down considerably (“The rush destroys everything / And everyone’s always rushin’ around”), and for the better. You’d better be holding on to something when the song spikes in the middle and then stomps its way to an emotional finish. It’s a scary-good ride.
Jantzen also tackles populist themes when he stretches into folk. “Work Week” is a Woody Guthrie nod with simple, pointed criticisms like, “Sad old money machine runs very inefficiently” and truisms: “Don’t let the past make your decisions / Tradition don’t make it right.” It’s a poignant, careful update on one of the oldest, truest forms of music.
“Feathers” mostly hangs out in Jantzen’s traditional alt-country/folk zone, although tuned a little softer by the presence of hovering, gentle synthesizers. It’s a gem of a locally made record, the kind of music that really ought to show up in Oklahoma more often, but sadly doesn’t.