16 Horsepower – Sinners in the Hands of a Twangry God
“The seed is the word of God.” Luke 8:11
David Eugene Edwards composes alone, picking out brooding and intense melodies on his accordion, on his banjo. “I play until I find something that strikes me and then I bring it to the group at practice and we arrange it.” With the addition last year of Jeffrey-Paul, a multi-instrumentalist from Edwards’ former band, the Denver Gentlemen, 16 Horsepower has substantially enriched the resources from which it fleshes out the skeleton Edwards provides. Jeffrey-Paul adds fiddle, guitar, cello and organ to Edwards’ banjo, accordion and hurdy gurdy. Jean-Yves Tola contributes drums, percussion and piano, and Pascal Humbert adds double bass.
Music press around the world has characterized the band’s output as “American music.” If so, it’s first-generation American: Appalachian jigs and flatland reels laced with remnants of Old Country polkas and cabaret adagios. Electrified, amplified and vocalized as if by Jim Morrison & the Walkabouts, the music is unbelievably, unmistakably the devil’s own music, rock ‘n’ roll.
Then, however, comes the Word. “Lyrically, I usually wait until the song is pretty much done before I put lyrics to it,” Edwards says. “I have a book where I write down what comes to me — one word or a sentence. When I have the music, I go into this book and I pick out things that maybe have the same feeling to me as the music does. One sentence to the next in a song, they could be written months apart. Sometimes it seems to me like an incoherent mess.”
But: “He who has ears to hear — let ’em hear it.” This line, echoing countless gospel references to Jesus’ parables, is one of the phrases from Edwards’ book that surfaced in “Golden Rope” on 16 Horsepower’s new Low Estate. It seems to sum up best what David Eugene Edwards has to say about the droning, magnetic, minor mode summons that pervade his music. “I have a duty, an obligation to do what I do. The music I’m making is for the people who need that.”
While all his secular work is stitched with catch-phrases instantly recognizable to churchgoing Christians (indeed, Edwards has written hymns for the nondenominational Christian church he attends in Denver), “Golden Rope” is the purest proselytizing he has yet recorded with 16 Horsepower. In it, he contrasts the lightness of a faithful person’s burden with the “lovely chains that bind” the listener “‘neath their deadly weight…Warm is the breath of his holy spirit…May you know his name and fear it.”
“Golden Rope” is unique in its explicitness and in the linearity of its message. In the main, Edwards is content for his songs to be a vessel from which people take whatever messages are meaningful to them. He is surprised that people find his music dark. “I’m not that way as a person,” he says. “I’m just like everyone else — happy most of the time. I have more hope than I could ever hope for. I have a lot of faith in the power of God and the love of God and the joy of God.” He adds, “I’m a New Testament kinda guy.”
Of contemporary Christian music, he says, “I don’t listen to any of it. I don’t think it’s bad, really; I think it’s good for the people who need it. But I make music for people who would never want to listen to that. Christian music is just like any other business. There’s a formula to it just like pop music. If you say the right joyful things you’ll be on the radio. I agree with everything they say pretty much. I just feel like it’s kind of vacant. I know there are a lot of good people in that; most of the best ones probably don’t get heard.”
If Low Estate delivers 16 Horsepower’s first explicit Christian message, it also gives us the band’s first recorded love song — “Hang My Teeth On Your Door”, which Edwards and Jeffrey-Paul wrote during their days in the Denver Gentlemen. The song relates an almost giddy joy in mutual love and lust, the fun and comfort of it. It’s hard to say whether the message is more underscored or undermined by the woozy, beer-garden-waltz feel of the music, but it’s a standout track on Low Estate. “I think it’s pretty obvious that the songs on this record are much more varied,” Edwards observes, “which has a lot to do probably with the different textures of it. Just the changes that we’ve gone through since we made the first record, and the different people that have also added different textures.”
The moody, almost gothic sense of most of 16 Horsepower’s sound arises less from the music itself, the rich instrumentation and weird tunings, as from the songs Edwards crafts to sing over all that. Influenced in part by Hassidic chants, the melodies link tense lyric images of guilt, longing and threats of retribution with exhortations to fear God. Even when the message contains no reference to religion, it seems intended to lay bare the moral bankruptcy of contemporary life played out in idolatry and lust, usually with respect to material things but also pertaining to the exploitation of others to one’s own ends. Comfort is offered only by the Lord…and Ruthie Lingle.
Lingle first appeared on 16 Horsepower’s A&M debut, Sackcloth ‘n’ Ashes, which includes a song that bears her name. She surfaces again atop a roof on Low Estate, light as a good conscience. “She’s one of my first memories of being in church,” Edwards says. “She was someone my mother would put in charge of me in church. She was 12 or 13. She was really beautiful and I loved her. She was really good to me and a good person. I use her as a symbol for a lot of things.”
Ignore the lyrics, or listen in another language, and 16 Horsepower’s music is still disturbing. Like it or not, it insists on a response. Its drama and depth were sufficient to lure PJ Harvey’s producer/collaborator John Parrish to record Low Estate with the band in the spring of ’97 in an antique studio in a bayou-side barn on an aging plantation in map-speck Maurice, Louisiana.
“Their sound is very defined…that’s what, for me, makes it a successful band in my mind,” Parrish said. “It doesn’t matter basically what instrumentation you’re doing, whether it’s a song that we spend three days on constructing and doing a lot of overdubs and dropping in parts, or whether it’s one that we recorded live with one microphone on the porch or in the big room or whatever. Every piece sounds like [them] because [16 Horsepower] has a very, very definite sound…a very difficult thing to create if it’s not there in the first place.”