16 Horsepower: Folklore

Matthew Chabe

16 Horsepower


Label: Jetset
US Release Date: 2002-08-06
UK Release Date: 2002-07-01

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

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.





Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Gloom Balloon Deliver an Uplifting Video for "All My Feelings For You" (premiere)

Gloom Balloon's Patrick Tape Fleming considers what making a music video during a pandemic might involve because, well, he made one. Could Fellini come up with this plot twist?


IDLES Have Some Words for Fans and Critics on 'Ultra Mono'

On their new album, Ultra Mono, IDLES tackle both the troubling world around them and the dissenters that want to bring them down.


Napalm Death Return With Their Most Vital Album in Decades

Grindcore institution Napalm Death finally reconcile their experimental side with their ultra-harsh roots on Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism.


NYFF: 'Notturno' Looks Passively at the Chaos in the Middle East

Gianfranco Rosi's expansive documentary, Notturno, is far too remote for its burningly immediate subject matter.


The Avett Brothers Go Back-to-Basics with 'The Third Gleam'

For their latest EP, The Third Gleam, the Avett Brothers leave everything behind but their songs and a couple of acoustic guitars, a bass, and a banjo.


Brian Cullman Gets Bluesy with "Someday Miss You" (premiere)

Brian Cullman's "Someday Miss You" taps into American roots music, carries it across the Atlantic and back for a sound that is both of the past and present.


PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.


David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors

David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


David Lord Salutes Collaborators With "Cloud Ear" (premiere)

David Lord teams with Jeff Parker (Tortoise) and Chad Taylor (Chicago Underground) for a new collection of sweeping, frequently meditative compositions. The results are jazz for a still-distant future that's still rooted in tradition.


Laraaji Takes a "Quiet Journey" (premiere +interview)

Afro Transcendentalist Laraaji prepares his second album of 2020, the meditative Moon Piano, recorded inside a Brooklyn church. The record is an example of what the artist refers to as "pulling music from the sky".


Blues' Johnny Ray Daniels Sings About "Somewhere to Lay My Head" (premiere)

Johnny Ray Daniels' "Somewhere to Lay My Head" is from new compilation that's a companion to a book detailing the work of artist/musician/folklorist Freeman Vines. Vines chronicles racism and injustice via his work.


The Band of Heathens Find That Life Keeps Getting 'Stranger'

The tracks on the Band of Heathens' Stranger are mostly fun, even when on serious topics, because what other choice is there? We all may have different ideas on how to deal with problems, but we are all in this together.


Landowner's 'Consultant' Is OCD-Post-Punk With Obsessive Precision

Landowner's Consultant has all the energy of a punk-rock record but none of the distorted power chords.


NYFF: 'American Utopia' Sets a Glorious Tone for Our Difficult Times

Spike Lee's crisp concert film of David Byrne's Broadway show, American Utopia, embraces the hopes and anxieties of the present moment.


South Africa's Phelimuncasi Thrill with Their Gqom Beats on '2013-2019'

A new Phelimuncasi anthology from Nyege Nyege Tapes introduces listeners to gqom and the dancefloors of Durban, South Africa.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.