16 Horsepower mastermind David Eugene Edwards spent much of his childhood on the road with his grandfather, a Nazarene minister, travelling from town to town preaching old time religion. Religion informed his life then, just as it does now; in fact, Edwards’ music has probably become more focused on Christianity with each album. The presentation is jarring; Edwards is devout in a rather Old School way—one read through his interviews will likely find a few beliefs that modern moderate Christians probably find too stringent. Be that as it may, Edwards forges ahead. The 16 Horsepower sound relies heavily on the bandoneon (an archaic, button-covered accordion), banjo, and a guitar style that veers back and forth between eerie slide work and slack-key wooziness. This is the music you expect to hear when deep, religious epiphanies are taking place in the woods, in white clapboard churches, by people who are suspicious of overly rhythmic, “sensual” Christian music. Edwards’ lyrics seem to borrow equally from both the Old and New Testaments—for every song about finding grace, there’s seemingly a song about God’s wrath.
The high point of 16 Horsepower’s journey so far is last year’s Folklore, a sombre, brooding disk that seemed to encapsulate everything Edwards had been working towards. It’s only natural, then, that Olden should shed light on the formative years when Edwards was just starting his musical search for the mysteries. Thing is, he was pretty close even at the beginning, as if during all those childhood years on country roads with Bible in hand, the pieces were subconsciously falling into place. Olden covers demos from 1993 and a live show from ‘94—a full year before 16 Horsepower’s six-song self-titled debut, and it’s not the sound of an artist struggling to find his voice.
Of the 1993 Night Owl Session demos that lead off Olden, all but one—“Coal Black Horses”—wound up on 1996’s Sackcloth n’ Ashes. Here, though, the songs are more raw, more frenzied, and Edwards’ spiritual quest seems all the more desperate. It’s hard to believe that any of 16 Horsepower’s albums could be considered refined or tempered, but that’s the implication throughout Olden. “Scrawled in Sap” lurches back and forth, almost tripping over itself, with slide guitar finding ever-new depths to explore. Likewise, “Coal Black Horses” feels like a constant race between Edwards’ tortured vocals and the nearly unhinged arrangement.
1994’s Kerr Macy Session demos (which contributed to 16 Horsepower, Sackcloth n’ Ashes, and the John Parish-produced Low Estate) are no less committed. “South Pennsylvania Waltz” shambles in with a sense of menace to match the dark defiance of Edwards’ lyrics (“I ain’t afraid of you no more / Nor the scars upon your wrist / These bullets you been shooting at me / Yeah, they all fall short and miss”). “Shametown”‘s guitars dance around like dervishes, easing back only when Edwards sings, but the song loses no intensity. “Strong Man” takes a leisurely pace, but there’s menace in the almost liquid notes (Old Testament-fueled lyrics like “There must be no pity for him / We must kill him where he stands / No, there will be no mercy for him / Nor for any of his clan” don’t lighten things up either). These sessions also offer up an unreleased cut in “Train Serenade”, a full-bodied, churning song right in keeping with the 16 Horsepower template.
Olden finishes up with six live tracks from 1994, all of which show surprising energy. It’s easy to imagine Edwards turning his live shows into the hypnotic rock ‘n’ roll equivalent of a snake handling service. Instead “Slow Guilt Trot” (previously only available as a rare vinyl b-side) tears around with an almost punkish focus, and “Low Estate” chugs along with methodical purpose. “Pure Clob Road” sounds like a cross between the French Cafe Band of the Damned and a sea shanty to be sung while crossing the River Styx, and “Heel on the Shovel” really kicks up some dirt. This is before the band had even released its debut, and the sound on these live tracks is tight, focused, and relentless.
In short, Olden succeeds where a lot of archival releases fail: it generates an energy all its own, free of the material that came later. It’s certainly interesting to compare the relative rawness of these songs with their “official” counterparts, but there’s just as much to be gained from taking this batch of harsh, searching songs as its own entity. The only misstep comes in the form of two interviews. The first, with Edwards, cuts off after 20 seconds—just as Edwards is starting to discuss the role of religion in his work. The second, with someone who apparently signed the band, doesn’t offer much in the way of new insight. Still, Olden courses with both musical and lyrical vigor, with a leanness that sometimes got lost in the production process of Sackcloth n’ Ashes or Low Estate. If there’s more archival material like this, Edwards can release it as often as he likes.