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Sixteen Horsepower | Folklore (Glitterhouse)
On their fourth album, Denver based 16HP confound all expectations and show that they're not the one-trick ponies that their first three records suggested. You know what I mean and I guess they do too because gone are the Gun Club / Violent Femmes swagger and brimstone cliché of their early work and ushered in, in its place, is a much more considered, thoughtful sound, a sound of a band breaking away from their usual structures and stretching out. Not that this is an easy girlmeetsboy collection of bubblegum pop. David Eugene Edward's sozzled, bourbon preacher yelp and Southern Gothic lyricism remain as potent and potentially off-putting as ever but somehow they've managed to focus their intentions and find a receptacle that highlights their strengths without pandering to their weaknesses. Case in point, Hutterite Mile, the first track, introduced by a slow country blues guitar that sets up a sinister atmosphere that's actually held in check rather than rocking out and thus manages to sustain the tension of the song over its four haunting minutes. There's still the trademark hypnotic swirl of the rhythm section but it's subtler, more resonant, while the group's trademark instrumentation of accordion, banjo and fiddle are used sparingly, for colouration as opposed to shoving everything in the mixer at full volume. And it's just this restraint that gives the album its underlying tension as they mix originals with traditionals from across the world. Outlaw Song is a tale of horse thievery gone wrong, punctuated by a sinuous banjo line despite the fact that it's based on an Hungarian rather than Appalachian traditional, reaching a perfect conclusion in Edwards' bile-ridden spat-out words as the law surrounds him: "They ask again what was my name / Two were dead before they could move / That's my name if you please." Blessed Persistence is a grim, unsettling tale with the great couplet, "The locust has no king / Just noise and hard language" and though you don't always know what he means, there're enough striking and original images scattered throughout the album to keep this listener interested. The cover of Hank Williams' best and darkest song, Alone & Forsaken, almost captures the bone-chilling haunt and shiver of the original but then spoils it by adding some unnecessary backing vocals while the cover of the Carter Family's Single Girl is the Americana equivalent of Chas & Dave, a rollicking knees-up that should have been confined to some fetid swamp or at least a B-side. Still, those two apart, the album hangs together well, sustaining the claustrophobic, acoustic feel until you get to the last song, sung in French, aided and abetted by the wheeze of an old accordion, and if you close your eyes you could be in some dank, underground cellar in Marseilles, drinking Calvados and singing along though the fog of black tobacco. Their best album by a country mile.

Stav Sherez
CWAS #11 - Autumn 2002

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