While the term "Southern gothic" has become a shorthand description for the Sixteen Horsepower sound, Folklore
suggests that the group has embraced the tag. They've redefined their brooding tone by constructing a ruined sonic landscape populated with sullen figures searching not for redemption but catharsis. Filled with murder ballads and tales of sin and redemption, Folklore
is the sound of a sinner chasing away both the demons that torment him and the loved ones who fail to see that he has been haunted and changed. That stressful balance is embodied by David Eugene Edwards' wailing vocals, which remain a stunning hybrid of Gram Parsons' white-collar cowboy and Tom Waits' avant-garde crooner. Folklore
is the dark side of Americana, almost completely devoid of the hopeful inflections that render so much of that musical tradition life-affirming.
Nearly half of the songs on Folklore are traditional compositions re-arranged and given new life by Edwards and company, which is a testament to 16HP's ability to craft such unique and absorbing atmospheres and textures from tunes that have been available for generations. The propulsive dirge of "Blessed Persistence" is a ghastly torch song, combining elements as diverse as the Violator-era atmospherics of Depeche Mode, the minimalist string arrangements of Rachel's and the stylized guitar sounds of Ennio Morricone's most famous spaghetti-western soundtracks. Imagine an exhausted Robert Plant fronting a vocal interpretation of Labradford's Mi Media Naranja and you'll begin to understand the depth and complexity of the track. Similarly, "Outlaw Song" recalls the dynamism of Zeppelin III, sprite acoustic instrumentation colliding with swelling bass sounds and galloping rhythms. Meanwhile, the raucous, foot-stomping sing-along "Single Girl" (a Carter Family composition) and the album-closing "La Robe a Parasol" are uptempo, uplifting numbers that stand in relief from Folklore's otherwise dark lyrics and sombre instrumentation. The dissonant interplay of violin and banjo on many of the tracks evokes contemporaries like Dirty Three and Palace, their decidedly modern perspective on loss and loneliness informing the timeless aura of the tunes. Each track is strong enough to stand on its own, yet fits with precision into the overall structure of the this Old Testament-fashioned epic.
Revealing itself slowly, like the mythic tales acknowledged by the album's title, Folklore is certainly Sixteen Horsepower's most stunning and accomplished work yet, and an easy nominee for one of 2002's best.