Short Cuts

Lyrically, Clapton still has blood in his veins. His mood here is mournful yet hopeful, and his words are fiercely self-revealing. The tone is set with the opening track, "My Father's Eyes": "How did I get here?/What have I done?/When will all my hopes arise?/ And how will I know it?/ When I look in my father's eyes."

On the title track, Clapton asks, "And how do I choose?/And where do I draw the line/Between truth and necessary pain?/ And how do I know?/ And where do I get my belief/That things will be all right again?" These musings are similar to those on Bob Dylan's recent Grammy-winning effort. Like Dylan, Clapton was once immortalized by fans; on Pilgrim he sheds tears, becoming all too human.

Yet computers are making much of the music here, and they just don't provide the kind of emotion to match Clapton's lyrics. Short of Guns n' Roses with a string section, there's nothing more inappropriate than Eric Clapton with light, monotonous beats.

-- Jonathan Lesser

Sixteen Horsepower
Low Estate
(A&M)

Sixteen Horsepower takes traditional bluegrass and country and sears them over some coals. This isn't a particularly new idea, but instead of the tossed-off melancholy or loner sentiments found in much cowpunk, this Denver-based band offers a haunting theatricality, courtesy of evangelical, lake-of-fire lyrics and a downright slithering sensuality. The multi-instrumentalist band -- David Eugene Edwards on vocals, banjo, and accordion; Jean-Yves Tola on drums and piano; Pascal Humbert on bass; and Jeffrey Paul on guitar, fiddle, and cello -- have definitely learned a thing or two from gloomy cowboys such as Nick Cave and the Louvin Brothers.

When Edwards, the band's chief singer and songwriter, wails, "The devil's brand is on my bones/And from the inside the Holy Ghost groans," he's not speaking metaphorically. Edwards, a Christian who has actually composed hymns for his hometown church, wants to do God's will. But Edwards' religion doesn't involve warm hugs and chubby angels watching over you. Most of the lyrics on Low Estate tell tales of despairing, self-flagellating sinners and hard-earned redemption. The band's debut album, Sackcloth 'n' Ashes (1996), thumped the same Bible but was musically starker. Sackcloth boasted an absolute gem of a song called "Black Soul Choir," a banjo-driven, back-porch jeremiad with a marvelously catchy chorus; Low Estate doesn't have a similar centerpiece, but its songs cover a wider range of moods. "My Narrow Mind" gallops along like a Wild West hootenanny; "Golden Rope" sounds like wobbly carnival music from the Nineteenth Century; "For Heaven's Sake" verges on a techno beat a la Nine Inch Nails.

Edwards hoots and hollers like a preacher who has some sordid habits and who knows we do, too. ("Where could I go but to the Lord/I've been to your house and seen what you adore.") Sometimes these two sides stand out in sharp contrast, as when the creeping gothic fog of "The Denver Grab" is immediately followed by the Appalachian bluegrass of "Ditch Digger." At other times the influences fuse into a postpunk confessional. The obvious reference points here are Cave, Gordon Gano (of the Violent Femmes), and Will Oldham (of the Palace Brothers). Edwards deserves to take his place among those and other artists who are troubled by the shadows over their souls.

-- Theresa Everline

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