Sixteen Horsepower (or 16 Horsepower if you're nasty) make modern-day hillbilly music. But don't confuse the sound you hear jangling out of this breathtaking band with the putrid roots-rock or awful alt.country offerings you may have already been exposed to this is the real deal, Bill McNeal. The music of Sixteen Horsepower almost certainly has more in common with field recordings made in the South during the '30s than it does with Wilco, and that's probably why the band has remained relatively obscure in the U.S. for the past 10 years an irony seeing as their music is so uniquely American.
What we have here with Olden is a collection of Sixteen Horsepower's most archaic material two of the band's earliest recording sessions, a live set from 1994 and brief interviews with the band and its handlers spread throughout the demos and live material. The songs collected here are quite different from their "official" recorded versions, and the CD is certainly an interesting peek into a band's creative process.
Admittedly, though, the versions of the songs on Olden are inferior to those versions found on Sixteen Horsepower's actual albums. The demos, which were played by the three-piece band that Sixteen Horsepower was at the time, are carefully crafted, with fully realized arrangements with the utilization of bass, drums, guitar and even bandoneon. But the songs did indeed profit from later sessions with more time and money involved "Low Estate," for example, isn't the sad churning plea that it became when recorded again four years later on the album of the same name. And yet it still packs a powerful punch, even in its primitive state, as do the songs "I Seen What I Saw" and "American Wheeze."
Singer David E. Edwards is a superb lyricist, and the words he weaves into the band's songs are both funny and frightening. How can someone not a love a man who sings "You say you got a bone to pick, well, there's plenty showin' on me"?! Need more proof? Here 'tis: "Whispered to you in the dark and I think you heard me say, 'Let's say goodbye like we said hello, in a friendly kinda way.'"
Something fun about Edwards' lyrics is that one cannot tell if they are meant to be tongue-in-cheek or earnestly written from the perspective of someone who truly has been infected by religious spirituality this grey area is surely harrowing to wander around in. Witness: "He came and took your place but you don't give a rip and down to hell you slip."
Edwards has the kind of voice that suggests he has taken his fair share of lumps he is haunted, and one can hear it in his rich vocals. Sadness, hurt, rage and quiet humor hide in his warbling tenor, which sends shivers down the spine when heard at just the right times.
Only one complaint to lodge against Olden: Though the interviews are mighty interesting, they should have been tacked onto the end of the CD and not placed between the songs the dialogues break up the flow created by the demos and live set. And, truthfully, this disc is not essential to the folks who have not already heard the band those poor misguided souls are to be pointed in the direction of the essential LPs Hoarse, a gargantuan live release documenting a gig the band played in 1998, and Low Estate, an evocative elegy. But for those already blissfully under the lash o' Sixteen Horsepower, Olden is golden.
"He took off, sixteen horses strong..."