20 Signs of Life in 2002
Number 12 - 16 Horsepower - Folklore
In an era when the term "folk music" seems applied to any artist who uses acoustic instruments, few albums truly exhibit the inscrutable mystery and inescapable desperation of the world known to the anonymous creators of the American folk music tradition. Somehow, with their new album Folklore, David Eugene Edwards and 16 Horsepower have explored the edges of those vanished territories, channeling the pervasive fear of now lost pastorals.
Quite possibly the most singularly meditative, haunting release of 16 Horsepower’s Holy Ghost-haunted catalogue, Folklore takes further the shiver-inducing despondency of past releases, here relying on droning cellos, wheezy accordions, spindly banjos and Edward’s eerily double-tracked vocals to create an atmosphere of despair and impending doom. Stripping away most of the electric guitars and rhythmic drive of their previous work, the album rarely breaks from the dirge-like ruminations on God, judgment, love and murder–in short, the themes that dominate American folk music. That only four of the 10 tracks are original doesn’t inhibit the spirit of authenticity with which they are presented. The band manages to find a hopelessness beyond even Hank Williams’ with their rendition of his "Alone and Forsaken" and turn the traditional "Sinnerman" into the ultimate warning of divine retribution.
As much as the album’s thematic aesthetic seems planted in the hills of Appalachia, the musical texture borrows its definition from the uniquely homespun instrumentation, achingly earnest delivery and rhythmic uneasiness of traditional Eastern European forms. 16 Horsepower might be reinterpreting the American folk tradition with the ominously defiant "Outlaw Song" and the intricately layered "Flutter," but the underlying idiosyncrasy of their performance–both in the tentative sway of the arrangements and the unexpected turns in melody–clearly draw from the Polish and Hungarian balladry informing the elliptical spirit of these songs. Before they complete their 10-song trek, they’ll brilliantly blend the droning nature of Tuvan throat-singing with elements of traditional American spirituals on "Horse Head Fiddle" and cut loose on a French waltz with "La Robe a Parasol."
Folklore speaks with the earthward metaphors of those who lived in the shadow of unseen pursuers and confronted their worst suspicions with music as their weopon. Given that 16 Horsepower can accurately, genuinely reintroduce and unite these themes in their music, it may be that David Eugene Edwards also finds himself running from the same ghosts.