16 Horsepower is, in seven sentence fragments or less: pure bluegrass. Johnny Cash. A midnight field, full moon. The crackle of campfire on a dark mountainside. Running from the law circa 1850. The Bible. And, well . . . Joy Division.
The brainchild of lead singer/multi-instrumentalist David Eugene Edwards, 16 Horsepower has for the past seven years been transforming the face of both rock and Appalachian Americana to forge something undeniably Its Own. With a sound equal parts Southern gothic bluegrass and moody modern rock, the band has managed to escape -- no, transcend -- such skittish labels as goth rock and alt.country.
16 Horsepower's newest, Folklore, continues in that vein. Differing from previous efforts such as their debut full length, Sackcloth 'n' Ashes, and 2000's rock-heavy Secret South, Folklore focuses more on the sublime aspects of their sound. Abandoning a good part of the rock the band explored most heavily on Secret South, the album centers instead on the groove of a more low-key form of bluegrass. It's one you might hear coming from the back porch of a plantation house, circa 1850 at sundown. The result is a brilliant effort that will find its way to the libraries of neither country purists nor rock snobs. Instead, Folklore -- as with all 16 Horsepower recordings -- commands to be listened to with an open mind. Otherwise, the point is altogether lost.
The album begins with the skeletal acoustic strains of "Hutterite Mile". Using the lives of the Hutterites, a puritanical people who believe their communal structure is ordained by God as an analogy for his own spiritual pains, "Hutterite Mile" oozes with Godly oppression and fear. Strains of violin squawk in the background as Edward's voice warbles in fear and reverence for the world around him. "Angels line my pockets dear / I walk a Hutterite mile", he sings fervently. "It's only misery / It's only ankle-deep".
That's dark. Of course, this is what Edwards and his band (he's the consistent visionary and only remaining member) are known for -- imbuing frightening, rock-inflected traditional instruments with a God-fearing soul, a spiritual self-doubt and an outlaw pensiveness. All throughout Folklore, violins and fiddles pop up unannounced, accordions make appearances, and banjos and standup bass are equally as comfortable as acoustic and electric guitars. Coupled with Edwards' voice, it's like a self-righteous preacher has come to salve your soul. Except the preacher in question has fallen. And maybe his faith, it's a little skewed now, too.
Folklore's four originals and six covers and traditionals solidify Edward's commitment to that conceit. Songs such as "Outlaw Song", a traditional Hungarian arrangement that tells the story of a star-struck horse thief and his fateful run-in with the law, and Hank Williams, Sr.'s "Alone and Forsaken", about a love irreversibly lost, are dark, scary dirges that yearn to find hope when all you have is none. In like fashion, the traditional "Horse Head Fiddle" of the Tuvan republic becomes a dark, instrumental dirge with overtones of gospel, and "Sinnerman", itself a traditional American arrangement, is a skeletal romp through, uh, sin, and final redemption at the hands of The Lord.
But while traditional God-fearing and absolution are often more scary than anything coming out of the dark realms of music today (does no one fear God anymore?), the originals on Folklore are anything but watered-down attempts at authenticity. Playing off his well-documented influences, Edwards crafts deep, punk-influenced stare-fests such as the Joy Division tinged "Blessed Persistence" and the dark stalker "Beyond the Pale" (which has nothing to do with the Mission U.K. or Procol Harum songs of the same name). "Flutter", a jazz-inflected ballad again touching on the darkness of lost love, departs from the formula a bit if only for its approach to the despair: mid-tempo, with piano sparkles, instead of sideshow fiddles and the haunting acoustics of a guitar in an empty Catholic chapel.
Cutting through all this smoke and brimstone come two up-tempo numbers. "Single Girl", a rendition of the Carter Family's bluegrass standard, is as true to the original as the band could get. The album closer "La Robe a Parasol", on the other hand, is a vagary of eclecticism, a traditional French mazurka (basically an upbeat waltz) that Edwards sings entirely in French. Translated as "The Parasol Dress", the inclusion of this song is a wonderment. If not for the mood 16 Horsepower had evoked throughout the preceding album (indeed, its entire five-album career), the song would have been a throwaway. But here, it works marvelously, even adding to the feeling of foreboding, like the calm before the beginning of an apocalyptic storm.
The album marks the high point of an amazing band's amazing career. It's involved, intricate, stark, and definitely not for anyone looking for good driving music. Instead, listeners should be prepared to sit back with this album playing loudly and let it take you on a ride of its own. You'll find yourself up a mountainside, in a humid summer field, along a riverbed, and at an abandoned campsite. All the while, you're walking 'neath a churning storm cloud, the sun's straining to get through, and you're thinking it's goddamned beautiful. Folklore, as a result, is one of the most Hellishly engaging albums of the year.