By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Sackcloth 'n' Ashes
A & M
THERE ISN'T AN American alive who hasn't bought into some myth or another. We're a nation stuck on dreaming, on archetypes and various forms of high stakes romance. What divides us is how we channel these models, and there are really only three branches of the kid-yourself river: past, present and future.
Lately, it's hard to miss a particular trend on the part of music-playing young folks in favor of the first, dipping into the well of old-time chestnuts and hick spirit to write songs that have a whole lot more to do with Moby Dick than Moby per se. It makes sense that post-boomers would find an affinity in country and folk's themes--hard work for low pay, loneliness, alienation, dread. Even the man who gave the '90s its defining anthem in "Smells Like Teen Spirit" left us in the pines with a fearsome old traditional song ("Where Did You Sleep Last Night," a.k.a. "In The Pines") as his last public musical breath.
So I'm no purist. Any American who claims to be either a snob or a fool. Among other things, the gifts and thefts between races, subcultures, and generations have left us with a fine pile of records. But that doesn't mean that every borrowed cup of sugar necessarily gets baked into a palatable pie. Two new albums, Gillian Welch's Revival and Sackcloth 'n' Ashes by Sixteen Horsepower, teeter on the edge of acceptability, half full of good songwriting and dedicated performances, half wrecked by the country equivalent of, say, a New Jersey punk band railing against Margaret Thatcher in fake cockney accents.
As the alternacountry movement grows stronger, we're sure to encounter more urbanites like Welch who dust themselves in cracker crumbs in order to feign authenticity. While a subMason-Dixon background has always helped in Nashville, where Welch now lives, it's hardly de rigueur; heck, even Hank Snow was Canadian. Welch was born and raised in Los Angeles, where her parents wrote music for that West Coast grand ole opry, The Carol Burnett Show. She went on to graduate from U.C. Santa Cruz (where she fell in love with bluegrass at a pizza joint) and then Boston's Berklee College of Music--an institution which has already unleashed Branford Marsalis and Juliana Hatfield on our unlucky ears.
My misgivings about Welch are hardly sonic. Her sweet voice is fine and full, at home on both churchy ballads and bluesy drawls, surprisingly unspoiled by the academy's fondness for technique. Her songwriting partner David Rawlings plays a lovely, evocative acoustic guitar, not just behind her, but with her. In "By the Mark," a nouveau hymn, his backing vocals curl around hers in the chorus that at first listen could have been written decades ago: "I will know my savior when I come to him/ By the mark where the nails have been."
But decades ago, the great hymnal authors knew their theology, because gospel wasn't just a postmodern source ripe for appropriation, but a high-priced ticket to eternity. Any true believer (or unrepentant backslider) knows that Welch's means of Jesus recognition are the sentiments of a certain poseur, Doubting Thomas, who forced the resurrected Christ to show his bloody palms before he would accept the miracle. Those in the know don't look; they know.
And it's hard stomaching songs told from the points of view of migrant workers and dirt farmers sung by a woman--with a store-bought Southern accent no less--whom you picture sitting on Harvey Korman's knee or attending freshman orientation at Santa Cruz: embarrassing lies like "We lease 20 acres and one Ginny mule/From the Alabama trust" or, worse, "When I die tear my stillhouse down." Stillhouse? What's next--"My Pet Raccoon"?
Besides Welch's topical trespasses, there's a humorless reverence in her tone that no real yokel (or fan of yokels) could ever stand for. By comparison, Colorado's Sixteen Horsepower's songs are less mature artistic statements than Welch's, but quirkier and wearing a wily grin. Maybe it's because songwriter David Eugene Edwards was raised a Nazarene--only someone who sat through the horror stories of fundamentalist religion can call on the demon spirits to poke fun using their own pitchforks.
Still, he can be a mite heavy-handed himself, with words like "mud," "Cain," "gander," "wicked" and "glory land" jumping out of his faux old-timey lyric sheets. The thing that saves Sixteen Horsepower from becoming solemn culture vultures like Welch, you get the feeling, is that they drink more. ("Come to my yard," Edwards beckons, "I got whiskey an' chairs.") They're looser, more immediate and (I mean this as a compliment) have a little of that old Charlie Daniels Band spirit. Plus, Astor Piazzolla fans will recognize the comely addition of a bandoneon accordion to their sound, which adds a little angelic light to an otherwise devilish swamp.
I hardly blame Welch and Sixteen Horsepower for an overdeveloped interest in our own history. But in the end, the best songwriters aim beyond a solid sense of the past, speaking with their own real voices of their own real lives in the here and now. That aim has little to do with forms or styles or instrumentation--those things will always be up for grabs. CP
Sixteen Horsepower perform a short in-store set at Let It Be records Friday at 7 p.m., and at the Fine Line Music Cafe Saturday at 8:30 p.m.; 338-8100.