SIXTEEN HORSEPOWER: A Requiem For Good and Evil
Jun 13, 2008, 04:58
“Every man is evil, yes, every man is a liar/An unashamed with wicked tongues sing in the Black Soul Choir”
Denver is a ghost town. Not in the manner of sand-swept streets and tumbleweed shacks of abandoned prospects, but in the manner of the death of the frontier spirit which embraced a simple, yet natural animalistic morality of survival. Its ghosts are of a bygone weary and haggard desperation for wealth and power.
You can see it in the multiple 19th century structures which now litter the downtown streets like half-eaten carcasses. Their utilitarian, yet ambitious architecture once yearned for big city splendor while hugging cautiously close to the Rocky Mountain plains beneath a menacingly wide-open horizon of blue sky. In recent years, spiraling growth spilling forth from California's strip mall invaders has gored these structures with smoothie shops and Southwestern boutiques.
A century ago, Denver bustled with subsumed cosmopolitan hunger of the coming modern age, but remained a haven which squeaked out of Bible Belt fundamental fanaticism, and instead found a curious balance between God-fearing Christianity and wild frontier justice. This mindset essentially portrayed God as a pistol-toting regulator ready to mete out devastation to any and all those who would violate His word. As much as the general population liked to be bad once in a while, the harsh winters, flimsy law enforcement and vicious opportunism of the region made damn sure everyone at least knew how to walk the line.
The spirit of this lost sense of order and community, this graveyard of a city which has long since abandoned its curtailing codes of good and evil, fills the nostalgic esoteric, dark country-blues of Sixteen Horsepower.
Their parched hillbilly country and western rag is coaxed from antique banjos, bandonion, slide guitars, upright bass and other devices derived from traditional American music of the 19th century—an era and sound incontrovertibly abandoned by consumers of popular culture as an embarrassingly barbaric and unsophisticated form. Theirs is the sound of ghosts: of abandoned roots, and a culture gone too big for its britches.
While we've become accustomed to the dissected tones and pilfered authenticity characteristic of atavistic garage rockers seeking the full circle, low-fidelity smear of their parents' record collection, Sixteen Horsepower are among the few artists offering a genuine immersion into a genre and style impossibly their own. However, without a glint of the hyper-clever, winking irony of artists such as Beck, Sixteen Horsepower evoke a sound long forgotten. But neither for the sake of their own marketability, nor to ignore the fact that over one hundred years have passed since the sound and instrumentation had relevance. Rather, singer/guitarist/accordionist/banjo-player/ et al, David Eugene Edwards conjures his apocalyptic lyrics, hellfire devotionals, shitkickin' banjo and wheezing accordion from his upbringing, traveling the Colorado gospel road as the grandson of a Nazarene preacher. Filling their sound with the same haunted hollowness which flows throughout his home base of Denver, Edwards sings as a fervent believer in ghosts.
Upstairs in the small dressing room of a suburban Raleigh, N.C. modern live music barn, Edwards sits on the lone couch in the dimly-lit space ruminating on his calling in life. A man of modest height and build, his slicked corn-yellow hair, signature choker necklace with a horseshoe pendant and his tightly-pursed lips casts a charismatic charm. “I'm not a preacher, I'm a songwriter,” he explains. “Someone once said to me, â€˜you must've done something really bad' for my lyrics to be so dark or creepy. But I don't really talk from experience, my lyrics are more based in conveying ideas.” Although his lyrics written and sung in Flannery O'Connor styled drawl do certainly convey images—images of Old West apocalyptic battles, of dilemmas of desire over virtue, of urgent sexuality and fear of retribution—they are commonly considered vague by audiences and reviewers alike.
“My lyrics are vague to me as well,” Edwards laughs, “I have a book that I keep with me and just write down a mixture of things that happen to me, and ideas I get. Usually, after I've got a song pretty much arranged, I'll go to the book and put together the things which seem to fit best with the mood of the song.”
In Edwards' case, the ghost he speaks of is a holy one. The teachings of the Church of the Nazarene contend that sin is unavoidable, and all sin is due equal punishment. That weary moral whipping post haunts the words of Sixteen Horsepower, most notably in “Black Soul Choir” where Edwards sings, “every man is evil, yes, every man is a liar/An unashamed with wicked tongues sing in the Black Soul Choir.” On “Black Bush” Edwards wails, “Oh my brothers/These are the dust bowl days/Just take a gander around ya/Everything in a wicked haze.” Even more directly to the point, in “Heel on the Shovel” he warns, “I'm digging you a shallow grave/An' on your rotten bones I'll raise daisies for my true love's hair.”
Similar to contemporaries Nick Cave and Tom Waits, Edwards and company are not reticent to employ updated production techniques and an awareness of their punk roots submerged within their revival of musical forms less likely associated with the mass market rock format. Edwards explains, “I'm a modern kid, you know? I like Sonic Youth, I like the Foo Fighters... I wouldn't deny the present.” Produced by multi-instrumentalist John Parish—best known for his work with PJ Harvey—Sixteen Horsepower's third and latest album, Low Estate opens with the demanding throb of “Brimstone Rock.” As Edwards plucks a cautious banjo line and declares the onsetting cataclysm, warning with evocative pauses of the clamoring temptation to come, “Listen closely to me now my darling girl, there's one who'll have you/And just his breath will burn your curls.” Shortly thereafter, another pause and the whole band joins the descending dirge as an ominous reverberation dissolves the tones into the murmuring bandonion (a 19th century button accordion), minor-scale xylophone trill and bass-key piano plodding of the album's title track. Drummer Jean-Yves Tola's massive, thudding, distant marching bass drum propels the haunting blues rant, adding a hint of the current century's recording techniques employed by blues revisionists, Led Zeppelin.
As the anthemic plea of “For Heaven's Sake” begins, Tola's trademark bitterly tight marching snare drum and recently-added guitarist/organist Jeffrey-Paul Norlander's chopping slide guitar lead headward into an explosive gospel-tinged epiphany of piercing guitars. Sounding like a choirboy's fearfully celebratory yelp, church organs, stuttering 16th note vibrato combine with Edwards' cuttingly emotive wail—reminiscent of Echo & The Bunnymen's Ian McCulloch dashed with the Gun Club's Jeffrey Lee Pierce—as he implores, “when will I hurt for Heaven's sake/when will I suffer for the sake of Heaven?”
“Ditch Digger” repeats this shivering urgency, as sprightly violin and banjos intertwine with a two-stepping backbeat, and Edwards joyfully sings the tale of a man's lost love, irretrievably gone six feet under, given one last visit as he digs into her grave to “free her from the Devil's world.” The song echoes the often curious themes of antiquated folk music, and their gleeful gloom masked within upbeat bluegrass rhythms and the quirky tones of banjo, accordion and hurdy gurdy.
“Golden Rope” is perhaps the best example of Sixteen Horsepower's unique gift for finding the enchanting ghostly charm within their nostalgic style and crafting songs which evoke the feel of the bygone era, while sounding strangely current. The clanking banjo waltz backs Edwards' declarations of apocalypse while shimmering horror-movie violin and organ hover above, until the waltz staggers into Pascal Humbert's bass fiddle overture. The full band then joins in the crescendo of crashing cymbals and snare cracks, drop-tuned slide guitars, glorious organ and rumbling bass as Edwards' fire-and-brimstone pontifications cry, “There you are—hangin' by the golden rope/There you lye [sic]—no hope.”
As might be expected of all their consciously antiquated sounds, the trio's self-titled first six song EP and 1995 debut album, Sackcloth 'n' Ashes were well received in the press and abroad, but American audiences have been slow to respond to their hauntingly soulful renditions of our musical heritage. In Europe, the band has achieved brisk album sales and tours successfully, which led to the release of Low Estate there six months prior to the January 1998 domestic version. Edwards contends, “Europe has much more word-of-mouth for bands, and since we don't get radio play and we aren't on MTV, we have to rely on that and just tour as much as possible. That's why I'm here, to do what I'm supposed to do.”
The band's 1993 inception in Denver was followed by a stint in Los Angeles working on Roger Corman's film lot and in a similar roots-based group featuring most of the band's current members, The Denver Gentlemen. Since then, Sixteen Horsepower has toured consistently working to build its audience base in America as well as abroad. “We just toured with Ratdog, Bob Weir's band, and we knew it would be the crowd for the Grateful Dead,” Edwards explains, “and that these people wouldn't have heard of us. But, I don't want to be part of a scene, and I don't want to be an entertainer, I want the music to be the focal point.”
Maintaining that focal point, the band has gone through some unusual personnel shifts. When Edwards left L.A. to return to his Colorado home, he convinced Denver Gentlemen drummer Tola, a native of France, to join him in his new group and locale. There, the pair plucked Denver luthier and double-bass player Kevin Soll to fill out the band. Following their Denver debut, they quickly made a name for themselves as local audiences became infatuated with their slithering sound. I was fortunate enough to see them in late December 1993 in a notoriously tiny and dumpy Denver bar, the Lion's Lair, where they shimmered with undeniable inspiration. In the months to come, the group added, then subtracted lap-steel player, Bob Ferbrache and signed on with A&M Records. Rigorous touring followed before and after the release of their first CD/EP. By the time Sackcloth 'n' Ashes came out in 1995, touring had worn Soll down enough to decide he needed to get off of the whirlwind tour circuit. “Kevin is still my friend,” Edwards says, “I see him around... I don't like talking about it that much because it's more of a situation where he just couldn't tour as much as we needed to. He wanted to be closer to home and to his shop.”
Soll was subsequently replaced by a temporary bassist, Rob Redick as former Denver Gentleman bassist Pascal Humbert (another native Frenchman) signed on as an additional guitarist. Upon Redick's departure, Humbert switched back to bass (both electric and upright) and Norlander pitched in his guitar, organ and string work just a few months prior to the recording of Low Estate.
While members have continued to shift and interchange, Edwards and Tola have remained the constants which create the indelible style of Sixteen Horsepower. “It's usually very easy to come up with songs,” Edwards says staring concentratedly at his black cowboy boots, “I don't hear anything in my head, usually, I just sit and play whichever instrument I feel like and something just comes up that sounds right to me.” This approach to traditional instruments like banjo and accordion, along with their capacity to bring out the enigmatic strength of antique instruments coursing with modern reverb and delay effects has brought Sixteen Horsepower its fair share of flack from the rigid traditionalists of the folk and bluegrass community. Edwards explains, “Many of the folk purists dislike us for sounding the way we do. Rather than try to play the most perfect traditional style, I try to use these instruments to say what I want to say... I think everyone should work hard to be the best at what they do, but just because I'm not a virtuoso on what I play or it doesn't sound like a Library of Congress recording, shouldn't affect our music. We all work hard to be as good as we can be at our instruments, but won't be set back by our limitations.”
“I want what I say to project; to be loud,” he insists, “that's why we use modern studio recording techniques to get the most power and best sound out of all these antique instruments we play.” Like their city and sound, Sixteen Horsepower's music yearns with a nostalgia that sings from their haunted and reanimated instruments. The apparition of a long-gone and consciously ignored American past fills their sound, as if to stir the forsaken morality of the West. “Warm is the breath of his holy spirit,” Edwards sings, “he who has ears to hear—let him hear it.”
This article originally published in 1998 in Your Flesh #40.