Sackcloth ‘N’ Ashes

by Sixteen Horsepower (1996, Fontana A&M)

Sixteen Horsepower was yet another one of those bands that I’d read plenty about, mostly in the form of rave reviews and the occasional interview, but I had never actually listened to their music.  Imagine my surprise when a co-worker mentioned them one day and let me listen to the MP3s he’d ripped from “Sackcloth ‘N’ Ashes”.  What followed can only be described as invigorating.  To be honest, I’d become pretty disillusioned with a lot of the music I’d listening to.  I’d been listening to so much music that I was getting into a rut.  Bands that would’ve excited me a month ago were boring me; all of those ultra-melancholy indie-pop outfits and abstract electronica knob-twiddlers were starting to grate on me.

Perhaps that’s why I became so smitten with Sixteen Horsepower within the first 30 seconds of hearing them.  There was something in that wheezing bandoneon and thundering bass that sounded so ominous, yet so eerily traditional on “American Wheeze”.  And I never thought a banjo could sound so creepy as when I heard one snake it’s way through “Black Soul Choir” and “Black Bush”.  “Harm’s Way” sounded like it should’ve been played against the backdrop of a European carnival burning to the ground; meanwhile, “Horse Head” described a dusty, deadend bordertown full of lost, weary souls.

And then there were the lyrics and vocals of David Eugene Edwards.  Lyrically, “Sackcloth ‘N’ Ashes” was like a mixture of fire and brimstone preaching, passionate love poetry, and desperate cries for salvation, delivered by Edward’s howling, trembling voice.  It had been some time since I’d heard lyrics delivered with such passion and conviction.

Edwards goes from confessing his love (“My knees was made for kneelin’ and that’s just what they’ll do/one of these days little girl, I’ll go down and pray for you”) to religious fervor (“Look see His bones are gone, He done all my dyin’/Sometimes the hope’s so strong in me girl I commence to cryin’) on “Black Bush”.  “Black Soul Choir” reveals Edwards to be less than hopeful about humanity’s condition (“Every man is evil/Yes an every man a liar/an unashamed with wicked tongues sing in the black soul choir”), and yet he is completely honest about his own fallen condition (“O I will forgive your wrongs/Yes I am able/An for my own I feel great shame/I would offer up a brick to the back of your head boy if I were Cain”).

In this age of cutting-edge studio trickery, digital manipulation, and sound editing, Sixteen Horsepower’s music is remarkably honest and primal, like it came from wax cylinder recordings made at the turn of the century.  “Sackcloth ‘N’ Ashes” sounds like it was recorded in some forgotten town somewhere deep in the South, where revival meetings filled the masses with a fear of the Lord.

Thankfully, “Sackcloth ‘N’ Ashes” never stoops to being preachy or overly spiritual.  But there’s no denying the real, honest to God conviction that drips from Edwards’ lyrics.  Although the songs often sound like they’re headed towards hillbilly country—which only occurs on the aptly named “Red Neck Reel”—one would be foolish to dismiss this as mere nostalgia-ridden backwoods folk music.  There’s an honesty, a dark conviction that runs throughout these songs, a tangible spirituality that makes these songs so intensely captivating.