A Primer on Christian Alternative Rock: 16 Horsepower
WHO ARE THEY? Someone once described them to me as a Flannery O’Connor short story come to life–which sounds about right, actually. Led by yelper/songwriter David Eugene Edwards–whose grandfather, I am obligated to tell you, was a hellfire preacher–16 Horsepower came from Colorado but sounded like they came from some mythical Christ-haunted, death-dealing South. They made rock music that didn’t sound like rock music, often relying on the banjo and the concertina (it’s like a little accordion). And the lyrics were aggressively fundamentalist. “I wish I was a Bible-thumping fool,” Edwards sings on one song. “Yeah, from the old school.” It’s impossible to tell how seriously he’s taking this, but either way, 16 Horsepower is a terrifying, powerful band, unlike anything I’ve ever heard.
Edwards was backed up, interestingly enough, by two French multi-instrumentalists, Pascal Humbert (who must have been hired, in part, for the literary resonances of his name) and Jean-Yves Tola. If it seems strange to you that Frenchmen would be this invested in American Southern Gothic music, keep in mind that it was the French who made Edgar Allan Poe a central figure in American fiction.
Though the band had a cult following in the United States, they were for a time the most popular band in the Netherlands. A Dutch documentary was even made about them, in which only Edwards is given the opportunity to speak on camera. One wonders if unbalanced coverage like that was part of the reason they broke up in 2005. (They claim it was “religious and political differences”; I can’t imagine that anyone doesn’t have religious and political differences with a guy like David Eugene Edwards.)
GENRE TAGS (OTHER THAN ALTERNATIVE ROCK): Alternative Country, Americana, Gothic Country, Gothic Rock, Progressive Bluegrass
RIYL Dock Boggs, Nick Cave; a raven sitting on an old tombstone; bright red blood coming out of a sepia-toned book; a Goliath spider rubbing its horrible legs together after catching a hummingbird in its web.
WHY DO I KNOW THAT NAME? Are you Dutch? That could be it!
WHAT’S THEIR BEST SONG? “For Heaven’s Sake,” from Low Estate (1997), a rollicking three-chord rock song that nevertheless sounds like nothing I’ve ever heard.
Secret South (2000). Some great albums are great because of their variety, and others are great because they pick a vibe and ride it for 45 minutes. Secret South belongs to the latter category. It’s more reserved than the rest of the band’s albums—maybe quieter, definitely less reliant on dynamic shifts and more ambient. The best song here, and perhaps the most typical, is “Burning Bush,” a slow burn that never explodes. The rest of the album inhabits the same chill, gray November evening.
The wild preacher persona that David Eugene Edwards adopts on the other 16 Horsepower records is really present only on the opening “Clogger.” In most of these songs, he’s looking inside himself, not at other people, and he’s not histrionic in his self-condemnation. When the music does get loud—as on “Cinder Alley” or “Poor Mouth”—the vocals fall in line, letting the frozen mist of the guitars dominate.
Special consideration has to be given to the two most traditional songs here—the old hymn “Wayfaring Stranger” and the new one “Praying Arm Lane.” The former is one of my favorite American folk songs of all time, and this may be my favorite version of it. Edwards is the still point of the turning world, hunched over his banjo while an ambient drone threatens to subsume him. “Praying Arm Lane” is the closest thing Secret South gets to a happy song, a banjo-led riff on Luke 19:40.
A scientist friend of mine once told me that dead leaves are a tree’s way of purging itself of a year’s worth of poison. In that sense, Secret South is autumnal, a personal purgation—eerie rather than scary, pensive rather than depressing, religious rather than spiritual. Some of the band’s fans might resent it for abandoning some elements of their old sound (there’s nary a concertina to be found), but to my eyes it maintains what is most essential and moves in new directions—just what “new sound” albums are supposed to do.
Low Estate (1997). Guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Jeffrey-Paul Norlander and bassist Pascal Humbert joined the band between Sackcloth ‘n’ Ashes and Low Estate, and boy, do they make their presence felt. Low Estate is louder and more fleshed-out than its predecessor, full of interesting little effects like the xylophone that clings like cobwebs to the title track, or the stuttering delay at the end of “For Heaven’s Sake,” a Gothic guitar workout that would have been unthinkable for this band just a year earlier.
With the heavier sound, Edwards can do more with his vocals. Most notably, he has developed an ear-piercing whoop that hangs somewhere between joyous and terrible on the louder songs. (Listen for it in “Sac of Religion,” for example.) His lyrics are better, too—on the band’s earlier releases, he sometimes seemed to be doing a Wednesday Addams impression, but here his words feel—well, personal’s not the right word, but maybe “true to life” works.
There’s a serious component of sexual menace to Low Estate, from the opening “Brimstone Rock” (“I beseech thee, Lord, clear my head / Before once again I scar the soul of that girl in my bed”) to “For Heaven’s Sake” (“I been to your house and seen what you adored / I left there stiff—stiff as a board”) to “Low Estate” (“David, he’s a nice young man / He feeds the girls on candy”) to “The Denver Grab” (“See the girl—the girl’s alone / See the boy—away from home”). It’s fitting, then, that the album ends with “Hang My Teeth on Your Door,” a song about entirely licit sex.
WORTH A LISTEN
Sackcloth ‘n’ Ashes (1996). 16 Horsepower’s debut is darker and rawer than their other releases—at times it feels downright dangerous, like when the second verse of “Red Neck Reel” veers suddenly from celebration to madness. Edwards’s prophetic rantings are backed up by a range of creepy backwoods instrumentation: the slide guitar on “I Seen What I Saw,” the banjo on “Ruthie Lingle,” and—most strikingly—the concertina on “Harm’s Way” and “American Wheeze.” (Could anyone other than David Eugene Edwards turn the accordion into an instrument of menace?) The clear winner here is the single, “Black Soul Choir,” a Dock Boggs-esque rave-up that belongs to the still as much as the church. Sackcloth ‘n’ Ashes is the sound that the band would modify for the next several releases; because of that, it can sound a little tired in retrospect. But I can only imagine the shock it must have been in 1996.
THE DISCOUNT BIN
Folklore (2002). As the title suggests, the largely acoustic Folklore is the 16 Horsepower album most indebted to traditional American folk music—in fact, four of its ten songs are authored by that greatest of songwriters, Traditional. The band also puts a Gothic spin on Hank Williams’s “Alone and Forsaken” and covers the Carter Family’s “Single Girl” with an authentically old-time sound. The originals are mostly not terribly interesting, although the opening track, “Hutterite Mile,” is beautiful. The band’s final song, the Cajun classic “La Robe a Parasol,” is probably the most upbeat song in their catalog and a great way to go out—but ultimately, Folklore is the least of the band’s full-lengths.
FOR FANS ONLY
16 Horsepower (EP, 1995). This is one of two EPs leading up to the release of Sackcloth ‘n’ Ashes. (I couldn’t find the other one, Heel on the Shovel, anywhere I looked.) The opener, “Haw,” pretty much sets the scene for their career, and the pieces of the band are already in place: the galloping, aggressive country sound, Edwards’s prophetic yelpings, the strange instrumentation. And yet all of them would be improved on the next several releases; the songs here are a little underwritten, and the guitars frequently sound out of tune. (This works to great effect, by the way, on “South Pennsylvania Waltz.”) The EP ends with “I Gotta Gal,” the jauntiest song in the 16 Horsepower catalogue.
GREATEST HITS, ETC.
Olden (2003) is not exactly a greatest-hits record, but it does present the oldest recordings of the band, made years before Sackcloth ‘n’ Ashes. Yours Truly (2011) is a more conventional greatest-hits package, with one disc of songs chosen by the fans and another of B-sides and rarities.
Hoarse records a Denver show between the releases of Low Estate and Secret South; there’s also the title-says-it-all Live 2001. Both make it clear that a 16 Horsepower show was a thing to behold. (I never saw them live myself.)
Other essays in this series:
Marc Byrd and Christine Glass
Happy Christmas, Vol. 1
Poor Old Lu
The Swirling Eddies
Vigilantes of Love
The Violet Burning