Sixteen Horsepower - Sackcloth 'n' Ashes
So what does this have to do with 16 Horsepower's acclaimed debut album Sackcloth ‘n' Ashes? In simple terms, the band's frontman, vocalist and driving force, David Eugene Edwards, is a Calvinist. And it does not take long in listening to this album before it becames stark-staring apparent. Just the tone of the music with its low swinging chords, its melancholy pace, its jarring guitar chords and its mournful lyrics should be enough to convince you that Edwards is, to revert to Mencken's words, not having a good time. And neither should you.
If you can depict in those old westerns the old guy, dressed in black, with his beautiful (but thoroughly miserable) virginal daughter, travelling the wooden towns of the desert, preaching fire and brimstone to all and sundry, and then bemoaning his sin in whiskey, then Sackcloth ‘n' Ashes is the album equivalent. Now anyone who knows me (or has read enough of my reviews on this site) ought to know, by rights, this album ought to be close to everything I despise in music. It is unashamedly religious (in the most objectionable sense of the word), unmistakably American to an extent which I, as a European, cannot relate to, and musically deeply flawed in ways I find hard to explain.
And yet, I find this album compelling. Perhaps because it is all those things and more. I mean, who cannot but find repugnant the self-righteous, sanctimonious moralistic hypocrisy of lines like these from "Black Soul Choir" -
"Oh I will forgive your wrongs/ Yes I am able./ And for my own I feel great shame/ I would offer up a brick to the back of your head, boy,/ If I were Cain."
Is it because I find the sentiments in it so repulsive that I am drawn to it? Is it the same feeling which draws a moth to a fiery death at the tip of a lighted candle? I honestly cannot tell, but there are times when I feel disgusted with myself because I actually like this. What makes it odder is that, normally, I find what may be called country music not to my taste. But this is not country music. This is American folk music, with fiddles and accordions, banjos and harmonicas, supplemented by modern musical instruments. I can imagine this in the dusty towns of the old west just as much as I can on the porches of the white rural poor of the Carolinas or the Virginias. And it is so unlike anything that lies in my collection that it just cries out to be listened to - repeatedly!
There is a strange feel to it. Not just because of the lyrics or the melding of the traditional and modern in terms of instruments, but in the very sound. It has the production of Hellfire about it. Edwards melancholy voice is clear, yet lies in the background somewhere between the drums behind and the banjos and fiddles to the front. Only "Red Neck Reel" bucks the trend - not only is it the most secular song (complete with profanities), but it is the only one which could be really described as uptempo, and yet it conjures up equally distasteful images - of inbreds in the Appalachian mountains getting drunk and doing a jig before going in to rape their sister, Daisy.
The more I listen to this, the more profoundly concerned I am for the sort of twisted mind that could make this sort of grim, unforgiving music. And equally for the sort of twisted mind which could find it enjoyable. As an Englishman, I may possess many stereotypical opinions and beliefs about what life is like in various parts of America. Sackcloth ‘n' Ashes is not an album which reminds me of the multi-ethnic cityscape of New York; the glitz and shine of Los Angeles; nor even of the damp familiarity of Seattle or Portland. No it reminds me of the bar in Gallup full of hairy bandana wearing bikers, ordered to leave their guns and knives outside the bar, and of the woman at the Grand Canyon who insisted that the Canyon was formed around 5000 years ago after the Great Flood. And because it reminds me of this, of things so strange and unfamiliar to an Englishman, it has established a connection with me, and for that I will come back to it again and again.
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