Nostalgic music need not be ironic. Or so declare Denver's Sixteen Horsepower with the release of their second full-length album of esoteric, dark hillbilly blues. Opposed to the dissected tones and pilfered authenticity of garage rockers seeking the low-fidelity smear of their parents' record collections, Sixteen Horsepower are among the few artists who offer a genuine immersion into a genre/style impossibly their own.
That is, the group's parched back-country blues and western rag -- coaxed from antique banjos, bandonion, slide guitars, upright bass, and other devices -- derives from traditional American music of the 19th century, an era and sound abandoned by consumers of popular culture. However, Sixteen Horsepower play without a glint of the seemingly requisite hyperclever mockery of Beck, or the James Brown jabs of indie-obscurants the Make-Up. Sixteen Horsepower evoke a sound long forgotten, not for the sake of their own marketability, nor to ignore the fact that over 100 years have passed since the style and instrumentation had relevance. Instead, singer/guitarist/accordionist/banjo player David Eugene Edwards conjures his apocalyptic lyrics, hellfire devotionals, shit-kickin' banjo, and wheezing accordion from his upbringing, traveling the gospel road as the grandson of a Nazarene preacher.
Yet, like contemporaries Nick Cave and Tom Waits, Edwards and company employ updated production techniques and their own punk roots. The trio's self-titled first EP and debut album, Sackcloth 'n' Ashes, were well-received in the press and abroad, but domestic audiences have been slow to respond to the hauntingly soulful renditions of American musical heritage. (In Europe, where Low Estate was released six months ago, the band sells records and tours successfully.)
Produced by multi-instrumentalist John Parish (best known for his work with PJ Harvey), Low Estate opens with the demanding throb of "Brimstone Rock." Edwards plucks a cautious banjo line and declares an impending cataclysm, using evocative pauses to warn of Satan's temptation: "Listen closely to me now my darling girl, there's one who'll have you/ And just his breath will burn your curls." Shortly thereafter, another pause and the whole band joins a descending dirge as an ominous reverberation dissolves the tones into the murmuring bandonion (a 19th-century button accordion), minor-scale xylophone trill, and bass-key piano plodding of "Low Estate."
As the plea of "For Heaven's Sake" begins, Jean-Yves Tola's bitterly tight snare drum and recently added guitarist/organist Jeffrey-Paul's (no last name) chopping slide six-string move headward into a gospel-tinged epiphany of piercing guitars. In comes church organs, stuttering 16th-note vibrato, and Edwards' cutting, emotive wail -- reminiscent of Echo & the Bunnymen's Ian McCulloch dashed with the Gun Club's Jeffrey Lee Pierce. "When will I hurt for heaven's sake/ When will I suffer for the sake of heaven?" he implores.
"Ditch Digger" repeats this shivering urgency. Sprightly violin and banjos intertwine with a two-stepping backbeat while Edwards joyfully sings the tale of a man's lost love, irretrievably gone, six feet under. Given one last visit, he digs into her grave to "free her from the devil's world," the gleeful gloom masked by upbeat bluegrass rhythms and the quirky tones of banjo, accordion, and hurdy-gurdy.
Perhaps the best example of Sixteen Horsepower's unique gift for uncovering the ghostly charm of nostalgia, and their ability to craft new songs that evoke the feel of a faraway time, is "Golden Rope." The waltz staggers into bassist Pascal Humbert's bass fiddle overture. The full band then joins in the crescendo of crashing cymbals and snare cracks, drop-tuned slide guitars, glorious organ, and now rumbling bass. Edwards cries, "There you are -- hangin' by the golden rope/ There you lie -- no hope." And the rupture gives way to silence.
-- Dave Clifford
There is something about the tradition of Southern revivalism in bluegrass gospel music -- the direct link between man and spirit and the sure optimism -- that transcends religious philosophy and Church Lady finger-pointing. This something makes for fabulous comfort music (especially for night driving), an association denied its secular brother ever since "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" and "Duellin' Banjos" became the theme music for white criminal psychosis in Bonnie and Clyde and Deliverance, respectively.
One of the loveliest pieces on Don Rigsby's debut solo album, A Vision, is the interpretation of the traditional "Drifting Too Far From the Shore." The message -- a fairly standard warning of doom and worse should the wandering sinner continue to stray -- is the sort of fearsome admonition that has caused centuries of sinners to jam their fingers in their ears. But Rigsby, reaching out to the sinner, finds vulnerability and compassion in the song. Despite the framework of fundamentalist Protestant doctrine, this is an inclusive music.
Rigsby plays mandolin in the Lonesome River Band; he's also the main vocalist, possessing a nasal tenor a little more complex than the standard, high, straight-ahead-bluegrass baying singer. On A Vision, he proceeds at a measured, thoughtful pace, paying tribute to the mournful minor-key themes of the late Carter Stanley, a man much given to beatific, sepulchral wallowing. (The record features three Stanley standards, including the beauteous "Angel of Death.") Rigsby directly acknowledges his debt to the Stanley Brothers, the classic outfit that played ultratraditional bluegrass parallel to Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys in the early '50s, by giving over a lead vocal to Ralph Stanley in "Rose Among the Thorns," a song written by Ralph himself.
A choice of more dignified songs allows Rigsby's vocal timbre space to breath a little; the a cappella "Higher Than I" reveals some pleasantly disconcerting throaty depth and allows for a little more note-wrangling showmanship. Fans of bright-eyed, romping revival-tent tunes will be delighted by the exuberant rendition of "Over in the Gloryland," where Rigsby is joined by the sturdy baritone of Ricky Skaggs -- an altogether bracing experience. Rigsby's style is gently engaging, and, above all, enduring. Expect this collection to sound just as wonderful in 10 years' time.
-- Cath Carroll