Low Estate 
Artist: Sixteen Horsepower 
Label: A&M Records 
Time: 49:36; 13 tracks 

Ask anyone who knows me well what style of music I hate most, and "country" is likely to come up.  I joke around, saying it's "straight from the pit of hell" (which is funny since I'm a death metal fan!).  And now along comes this newest album by Sixteen Horsepower--one of the new breed of alt.country bands, one that actually seems to be hunched over at the edge of hell, kicking hot coals with scuffed boots, faces aglow with the flickering flames a little ways off....yet desperately crooning songs of allegiance to the awesome Lord.  Yes, there is an extraordinary sense of the struggle between the flesh and the Spirit in these here lyrics:  

    Hey boy 
    Look straight at the sun 
    To the center you make a dead run 
    You're gonna halfta cut off both my hands 
    I got pride as big as Dixieland 
    I wanna sit where the velvet is red yes an' 
    where can I lay this apple core? 
    (from "Dead Run")
 I've heard these guys called gothic country, an apt label for sure due to the dark themes and tones pervading this album.  You'll have to ask someone more familiar with the genre to get the most accurate reference points for their sound, but I'm reminded of Southern Culture On the Skids and The Reverend Horton Heat from time to time.  The singing ranges from mournful cries to crazy squawks, and the guitars go from reverberating acoustic to indie rock distortion.  Percussion, cello, piano, organ, bass fiddle, hurdy gurdy, banjo, concertina...these all come together for some seriously textured tunes.  Production is masterful; it's like they're playing right there next to you.  This is for anyone looking for something eerie, something spooky, but something overwhelmingly spiritual in the truest sense of the word.  I'll end with some more juicy lyrics, first from "Brimstone Rock" and then from "My Narrow Mind":  
    Listen closely to me now my darlin' girl 
    there's one who's out to have you 
    and jus his breath will 
    Burn Your Curls.... 
      
    Wish I was a Bible thumpin' fool 
    Ye, from the old school 
    A mind as narrow as the road I walk 
    Always upright when I talk but 
    Take my hand and you will see...
  
By Josh Spencer 

 

 

    All my love 
    Well it is madness 
    Freely given to you folks with gladness 
    I will not live and die -- no not by the sword 
    I am weak without the joy of the Lord 
    (from "For Heaven's Sake") 
Very few bands have been raved about by the staff of the Tollbooth like this one. I've been hearing their name for the past year, and the time has now come to devote some serious coverage to them.  

"Gothic country" seems to be the tag that has been put on Sixteen Horsepower, and it is quite appropriate.  Alternative, but much darker musically than Son Volt or any of their peers. The vocals, instrumentation, and playing show strong country influences, while there is a dark current in both the music and the lyrics. I was a little skeptical about how this would work over a whole album, but it holds together marvelously, drawing the listener further in as the album progresses. 

The vocals were the aspect of the album which first struck me. The vocalist, David Eugene Edwards, has a strong drawl to his voice, which certainly adds to the country music parallels, but his is a very diverse voice, making use of a number of styles and even reminding me of the song "Great Balls of Fire" on "My Narrow Mind." Many vocalists can convey emotions well, but this one is exceptional in this respect. I found this to be especially true on track six, "Denver Grab," a slower piece backed by the sound of a bow being scraped across the violin. The vocals are sung in harmony - a deep bass and slightly whiney (but very effective) higher vocal. 

Granted, these vocals may not be to everyone's taste - they're a bit unusual and pained for sure, and he can't compete with some classically trained vocalists technically...but technical skill isn't the be-all and end-all of great vocals. 

Between them the band members play fiddle, guitar, cello, organ, banjo, concertina, hurdy gurdy, drums, percussion, piano, bass, and bass fiddle. The instruments have a very raw feel to them. I was very interested to hear the bass fiddle, an instrument I hadn't come across before, and it certainly has a powerful sound - very noticeable on "Golden Rope." 

The standout track for me has to be "For Heaven's Sake," opening with shimmering electric guitars, joined by sombre vocals and a tambourine. It all fits together to build a moody masterpiece, with the curious refrain 'When 
will I suffer for heaven's sake?' The rest of the lyrics explore a theme familiar throughout the album--one man's trials and frailty, and his salvation in Christ. While the band does not operate within the Christian marketplace, and there are no cosy salvation messages in the lyrics, it is more than obvious that they are Christians from a reading of the lyrics. Christians perhaps more connected with the lament than many, but Christians nonetheless. 

The closest the album comes to an upbeat track is, appropriately enough, at the end. The unusually-titled "Hang My Teeth on Your Door" has something of a hoe-down feel, but still retains the heavy bass end that makes that distinctive Sixteen Horsepower sound. 

The world of Sixteen Horsepower is a difficult, dark place. But then, they aren't the only ones to experience such a world, and their music is sure to resonate with many others. Justifiably so, as this is an excellent album, full of inventive instrumentation and moody masterpieces. 

By James Stewart 

 

 

Apocalyptic Appalachian hillbilly grunge.  Dave Eugene Edwards chortles like an itinerant Southern Pentecostal preacher caterwauling messages of mercy and hellfire.  If you need a comparison, you might find a fraction in some of the more pseudo-country songs by the Violent Femmes like "Country Death Song," or in the quirky folk work by The Horseflies.  But, frankly, Sixteen Horsepower have a spine tingling sound without peer.  It's been a long time since I've heard a band this freshly exciting and thoroughly stimulating.  Yee Haw!    

      Taste and see the Lord is good 
      Let's bend our knees like we know we should 
      We can't see clear - our eyes are made of wood 
      Taste and see boy that the Lord is good.
By Steven Stuart Baldwin