16 Horsepower

Secret South (Razor & Tie)

There's a line in the sand -- sin on one side, redemption on the other. And David Eugene Edwards has been caught on both sides. Through three albums with his band, 16 Horsepower, he's put forth a sort of Flannery O'Connor stance on morality: Even bad guys can be good if they're on the right side of the Lord. On Secret South, the Denver-based outfit's third album and first self-produced effort, Edwards, drummer Jean-Yves Tola, guitarist Stephen Taylor, and bassist Pascal Humbert take charge of their own darkly folkloric sound, evoking grainy images of mustachioed prairie rangers, rusty daguerreotypes, and frontier justice unloaded from Colt revolvers. Edwards' lyrics are hauntingly anachronistic as well; the grandson of a Nazarene preacher, he delivers his own brand of fundamentalist brimstone.

Although 16 Horsepower is deep into Americana roots, it could not sound any less like Creedence Clearwater Revival. Its music carries a sepulchral chill and a pervasive scent of death. Recording in a windswept mountain shack with long-time Denver associate and onetime band member Bob Ferbrache, 16 Horsepower has concocted both monolithic, muscular rave-ups and passive, sometimes desolate, ballads on Secret South. But to each approach, the band adds a brooding, apocalyptic outlook, befitting its status as the lost link between Hank Williams and Joy Division.

For instance a straight-ahead rocker like "Splinters" would likely sound dull in the hands of more typical American rural-route denizens. But thanks to Edwards' pained drawl and scratchy, vintage guitar, it has all the dramatic calamity of the band's best work. The barnstorming intensity of the opener, "Clogger," lowers the scythe as Edwards declares, "You ain't got away with nothin', boy/See his hand, feel his staff." The hollow echo effect on his voice resonates like the inside of a pine box.

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"Poor Mouth" adds an almost ambient, Monument Valley expanse behind the red-rock twang of Edwards' steel guitar, with only a whispery trace of his wheezy bandoneon. Three young string players help compensate for its loss. With the addition of a lonesome piano, this quieter instrumentation all but turns 16 Horsepower into a bunch of chamber-rock softies. Lyrically, though, Edwards is still spilling the venom. On "Straw Foot," his banjo and a raspy cello seem to cower as he spits, "Tired of that talk/Sick of that noise." But a charged take on Dylan's "Nobody 'Cept You" emerges as a ghostly love song, adding a martial drumbeat and Edwards' jangly guitar.

No wonder the band is huge in Europe, where the dark mythology of America's musical primitivism still holds sway. Within the malevolent dust storm of 16 Horsepower is a truth strong enough to make stateside listeners afraid... of themselves.

 
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