The secret is out. After two years without an American record label to call its own, 16 Horsepower is releasing Secret South on the New York-based major-minor Razor & Tie on Tuesday. Though the release has been circulating and selling well in Europe since April -- shortly after David Eugene Edwards, Pascal Humbert, Jean-Yves Tola and Stephen Taylor emerged from a makeshift recording studio in the mountains with Bob Ferbrache -- Secret South's domestic release is a gift for a swelling group of Horsepower fans who may now obtain the disc without any concerns over customs agents or international mail delivery schedules.
Come to think of it, it's kind of a gift no matter how you come by it.
Fourteen tracks long, Secret South is -- how would the band's European fans say? -- freakin' brilliant, a dense and string-heavy trek through Edward's own haunted imagination, a pastiche of gothic American imagery (from both the past and present) that is at once bleak and hopeful. Yet attempting to discern an easy tag for what this music is is a futile exercise in missing-the-point-entirely. The band's previous efforts -- 1995's Sackcloth & Ashes and 1998's Low Estate -- stumped some listeners as they attempted to make sense of the strange and sinister sounds they were hearing. Those with a more ornithological approach to music -- the desire to identify each of its species and breeds -- agreed upon the "alt-country" umbrella, knowing full well that the title fell short of this band that mated chamber harmonics, funeria and folkish stringed instruments with a confident refusal to give a damn what you called it. A strange bird, indeed. With its heightened orchestration and style straddling, Secret South will only complicate such matters.
"The whole alt-country thing is kind of about being a simple man with simple pleasures," says Edwards, who adds that Hungarian and Mongolian music are as much an influence on his playing as mood-mongers like Nick Cave and Bob Dylan. "I can't do that. There is too much in life, too many influences all around me that cause me to go in different directions. I don't want to be tied down as far as music goes. I'm too neurotic about music. I'm too obsessed by it to just do one thing."
Obsession, love, desperation and urgency are themes that run and run through Seven South, the lyrics of which were penned by Edwards as meditations on, or direct addresses to, people in his family, both immediate and distant. Unlike the previous 16 Horsepower recordings, though, Tola played an increased role in the writing of the music on Secret South. That difference is one of many on the record: There's the increased presence of Tola's piano, guest strings from Asher Edwards, Elin Palmer and Rebecca Vera, and the electric lead-guitar playing of Taylor, a New Orleans-based musician who came on board last year.
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The band's ability to traverse vast territories remains the same, however. A reading of the traditional "Wayfaring Stranger," for example, sounds at times as if it were recorded inside some boxcar on the underground railroad; other times, Edwards's agile banjo playing is surrounded by a swirling, ephemeral mass of ambient distortion. "Silver Saddle," with its chorus of whispering voices, is not something you should listen to while alone in the dark. Edwards's reading of Dylan's "Nobody 'Cept You" is a love letter that is jubilant and as wide open as a mountain range -- unless you decide to read it as the last vestige of hope in a lonely life. Secret South is dense and disturbing, moving and volatile, and therein lies its beauty.
Damnation. It's been clear for a while that 16 Horsepower is an important band, and this recording just might propel it into the upper echelons of some of America's more creative -- and challenging -- artists, not just to emerge from Colorado, but from anywhere. (Greil Marcus, notorious music scribe and columnist for Interview magazine, devoted his whole piece in the mag's current issue to the band, noting that while it may have been playing "dress up" on its previous discs, "now you might feel you'd better get out of the way.") As a launch to their monthlong American tour (on which they will be joined by Slim Cessna's Auto Club, which has a CD-release party of its own on Thursday, September 7, at the Bluebird), 16 Horsepower will perform live twice next week: at an in-store show at Twist & Shout at 11 p.m. on Monday, September 11 (the disc goes on sale at midnight), and at a CD-release show at the Gothic Theatre on Tuesday, September 12. While at either show, you really should consider buying this recording -- lest the ghosts that live inside it visit your house.
Things are not going as well for local punk-rock four-piece the Snatchers, who have decided to disband following two shows this week: Thursday, September 7, at the 15th Street Tavern, with Superbuick (the show kicks off the latter's tour), and Saturday, September 9, at the Lion's Lair, with Portland's all-girl power trio Spread Eagle (cute, huh?) and High Fidelity. According to Snatcher vocalist Don Moss, the band -- which formed as the Soul Snatchers in 1995 and has since done time on the local punk realm alongside bands like the Speedholes and the long-gone Electric Summer -- has succumbed to geographical differences; i.e., everybody's splitting town. Better snatch 'em while you can...Creative Music Works presents a heavy evening of instrumental music with The Space Between, a meditative and improvisational program led by accordionist Pauline Oliveros. Oliveros is known as the founder of "deep listening," a method of music-making that involves symbiosis and synchronicity, instinctive rhythms, spirituality and ritual. The trio also includes pianist Dana Reason and Philip Gelb, who utilizes the shakuhachi, an instrument whose use was formerly limited to Zen Buddhist meditations. The performance, scheduled for Friday, September 8, in the Grusin Music Hall on the CU-Boulder campus, will probably do more for your spirit than an entire season of Oprah. Just don't ask Oliveros to bust out any polka tunes.