REVIEW: Sixteen Horsepower: Folklore
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Sixteen Horsepower: Folklore [Jetset, 2002] (mp3s)
Three words? Cold desert liquor.
Folklore is a thick tonic - its fumes fill your nose, its vapors meet your eyes and make your sight waver. The taste is strong - distilled from cactuses grown only by night, from blue rocks and leather gloves. Sixteen Horsepower record a dense, Southern gothic kind of music; cellos flicker like the flames of a bonfire, the listener crowded close. David Eugene Edwards sings like a lame cowboy, coaxing his images out of the shadows. They're a more spiritual, rural version of the Bad Seeds, like ...Trail of Dead made slow and brooding; desolation bred into a black spice. In some ways, Folklore is the scorched, looking-glass brother of Coldplay's A Rush of Blood to the Head; instead of soaring into yellow light, it digs down into wet, night-green earth. American folk influences take the place of arena rock choruses. Still, the band saws behind Edwards just as Coldplay weaves behind Chris Martin. Guitar (acoustic, electric) mixes with mandolin, drone and scattershot drumming into an atmospheric mulch, a spirit smoke.
These are fuzzy metaphors, I agree - but Folklore is an album of phantoms and unsettling intuition. Only four of the disc's ten tracks are originals (there is one cut by Hank Williams, one by the Carter Family, and the rest are adapted from traditionals), but the group's aesthetic bleeds into every song. Acoustic instruments hum and creak while Edwards, Morrison-like, preaches. It's evocative and deeply beautiful, theatrical in its scope. "Hang my skull on the old larch tree, carve from its wood a two-string fiddle," goes "Horse Head Fiddle" as a wail rises from strings and throats. One imagines a night sky that goes on forever... On "Beyond the Pale", music-box piano lays a sinister bed of goth unease; on "Blessed Persistence" skeletons of electric guitar shake and stalk, eyes glowing red.
There are heavy stumbles, however. The Cajun traditional "La robe à parasol" and the Carter Family's "Single Girl", while energetic and quite well-arranged, are terribly out of place in Folklore's otherwise grim, arid landscape. Other acts - The Boggs, Gillian Welch - have made something far more resonant out of bluegrass in the past year, and these tracks' contrast is violent and frustrating to the careful listener. Pleasant, yes, but they are musical and thematic interruptions: immature reels that clatter and distract from their passionate, lyrical brothers.
However jarring "La robe..." and "Single Girl" are, they are of course not enough to take away from the power and pungency of the rest of the record. Sixteen Horsepower have recorded an outstanding album, recorded music that breathes at its own pace, that stares at the stars with whole, living eyes. There is a great darkness in it, but also a pulsing, red heartbeat; folk music with black fuel, with brimstone, whose flames leap high.