[9 September 2009]
In my perfect world, the catalog of 16 Horsepower would be reissued with all of the fanfare, b-side- and rarity-padding, and lavish, matte-finished packaging it so deserves, and which is so often wasted on lesser bands. As it stands, their third full-length album is the first out of the reissue gate, more as a practical matter of restoring it to print than as a commemoration.Secret South, originally released in September 2000, is being reintroduced to the market with few bells and whistles but for a bonus DVD-audio mix by producer/engineer Bob Ferbrache and a version on sweet, delicious 180-gram vinyl. Perhaps this straightforward approach is more in tune with the band’s austereness and disdain of frippery, but it might not be enough to draw the diehard 16 Horsepower nuts to re-purchase. And if a small flurry of accompanying press does lead curious newcomers to foray into the band’s recorded history, permit me to say this isn’t the album with which to embark.
Bizarrely, a lot of prominent internet resources describe Secret South as the moment when 16 Horsepower let go of their earlier, heavier sonic influences and adopted a laid-back approach featuring more rustic instrumentation. Others even suggest the album was the band’s finest hour. Wrong wrong wrong. A friend of mine was disgusted with the record at the time of its release, saying it sounded like Metallica. Though the album contains more slower, quieter material than not, the character of Secret South is dominated by four bruisers, lumbering hulks of song, the structures of which wrenched the band’s tracks from their familiar course and set them towards the ultimate destination of disbanding, with frontman David Eugene Edwards starting a new project, Woven Hand. If previous efforts were notable for their banjos, bandoneons, and slide guitars, Secret South is the album of electric guitars and pianos, grand and imposing as opposed to woodsy and well, kinda creepy (in the best way).
Prior to Secret South, the band had seen some evolution between its first EP and full-length debut, 1996’s Sackcloth ‘n’ Ashes and 1998’s Low Estate. Line-up changes contributed, as well as producers, but the band was still working with compositions that often pre-dated their contract with A&M Records. As such, despite some differences in arrangement and feel (check out the difference between “Phyllis Ruth” as a b-side from the Sackcloth sessions and as an album track on Low Estate), the three releases all feel of a piece, with the band’s righteous mixture of Appalachian reels, Violent Femmes, and the Gun Club hitting the rusty nails of spooky, serious, and sexy all on their respective heads. Secret South was a different animal. Released from their A&M deal after the label’s absorption into Universal, the band made a fresh start in Europe, where they were always more popular than stateside, with Glitterhouse, and in the U.S. with Razor & Tie. Having finally worked through their first brilliant wave of songs, they also had the opportunity to branch out and depart from the sound they had well established.
The songs of Secret South, on a nuts and bolts level, are very different from their predecessors. Early tracks like “Black Soul Choir”, “Slow Guilt Trot”, and “Heel On the Shovel” were lithe and spry, relying heavily on two-step rhythms. Even slower cuts like “Seen What I Saw” and the mournful waltz “Low Estate” sound modest and economical in broadcasting Edwards’ Pentecostal and apocalyptic visions. Secret South’s “Splinters” and first single “Clogger”, by contrast are muddy and leaden, which isn’t to say they aren’t beautiful and powerful in their own right, just in different ways than the band had presented before. “Poor Mouth” in particular is one of the album’s highlights, its wide-open, desert-air beginnings swelling to a squalling crescendo, after a protracted build-up. But odd choices of vocal delay, dropped-octave harmonies, and jarring guitar tones make the song’s various sections bump up against each other awkwardly, and the song is ultimately not quite what it could have been. On a live bootleg traded to me at some point before the album’s release, “Poor Mouth” was explosive, immense, but while the song’s inherent charms are clear on, the studio production sounds overly fussy.
If the good songs on Secret South ultimately shine through despite small flaws, the one or two true duds sink like concrete. “Cinder Alley” somehow manages both to sound sludgy and shrill, while the closing “Straw Foot”, though more tastefully arranged, does only what other 16 Horsepower songs have done much better. Covers of the traditional “Wayfaring Stranger” and Bob Dylan rarity “Nobody ‘Cept You” focus clear light on the band’s musical and lyrical influences, but are less compelling than the album’s best moments. Among the best is “Praying Arm Lane”, which manages to bridge the ramshackle feel of early 16 Horsepower with the hymn-like quality of Edwards’ work under the Woven Hand moniker. “Silver Saddle” and “Burning Bush” sound even more like that band, anchored by hangdog piano chords that suggest Leonard Cohen standing at high noon on a dusty street opposite Johnny Cash. So in as much as this reissue ensures that Secret South’s wheat remains in print as much as its chaff, then it’s a success. Still, those unfamiliar with the band would do better to seek out the first three releases, or better yet, cross your fingers for deluxe, expanded versions before CDs go the way of the passenger pigeon.