Grace Notes is a weekly exploration by Jason Morehead of signs of common grace in the music world. We hope to alert you to wonderful music, some of which will be spiritual in nature but all of which will be unique and worthy of your attention. Each week we will share brief reviews of albums worthy of your attention and maybe a video or two.
In September, Glitterhouse Records will release The Laughing Stalk, the latest album from Woven Hand, aka, the latest project by David Eugene Edwards. Edwards is arguably one of the most unique artists in Christendom, but despite releasing over fifteen albums in the last two decades, he remains on the fringe. Which isn’t surprising: his music, which draws from folk, country, rock, world music, and post-punk, is dark and intense, often frighteningly so. Edwards’ lyrics often sound like the ravings of an Old Testament prophet, or maybe a Flannery O’Connor character, as he sings of God’s thundering judgment and man’s wickedness, an impression that is only heightened by his howling, off-kilter voice.
Edwards got his start with 16 Horsepower, which he formed in California in the early 1990s with Pascal Humbert and Jean-Yves Tola. Their debut, 1995’s Sackcloth ‘n’ Ashes, quickly laid the groundwork for the group’s sound, with a rollicking-yet-haunting old-timey sound that blended traditional instruments like banjo and bandoneón with Edwards’ voice and gloomy, religion-filled lyrics (inspired, no doubt, by his childhood spent traveling with his grandfather, a Nazarene preacher). As the band developed over the years, their critically acclaimed music showed an increasing folk-oriented sound, which culminated in 2002’s Folklore. As the name might imply, the music on this album was very stripped down compared to earlier releases, with most of the songs being covers and reworkings of old folk songs and hymns.
Edwards began recording under the Woven Hand moniker shortly before 16 Horsepower’s demise, and while it shares much of the same DNA as his first group, Woven Hand has developed its own unique sound. Dabbling in more experimental and psychedelic sounds, as well as ancient sounds from Eastern Europe and Africa, Edwards has concocted a potent musical brew that can be intimidating and frightening in its intensity. All of Woven Hand’s albums are worth checking out, but my personal favorite is 2004’s Consider The Birds, which finds Edwards fixated on his own broken, frail mortality, and his utter dependence on God’s sovereignty and majesty. Indeed, the album’s first words are “Holy King, cause my skin to crawl away from every evil thing”, a plea that echoes throughout the album’s songs.
I was fortunate to catch Woven Hand at the Cornerstone Festival several years ago, and it was one of those concerts that I have no problem describing as “life-changing.” Edwards played like a man possessed, staggering and shaking on stage, staring wide-eyed into the crowd — many of whom had never heard the man before — and keeping us all spellbound.
16 Horsepower and Woven Hand are just the tip of the iceberg, though. The two groups helped form the foundation for a burgeoning music scene in Denver, Colorado, with members involved in a number of other bands that have all made compelling “fringe” music. Here are two that have a direct relationship with David Eugene Edwards and Sixteen Horsepower/Woven Hand.
Prior to playing bass and guitar in Sixteen Horsepower, Pascal Humbert had played in Lilium, a band he started in the 1980s. With the demise of 16 Horsepower, he restarted the project and has released several albums on Glitterhouse Records. As you might expect, they fit alongside quite nicely with 16 Horsepower — there’s still the same sepia-tinged, gloomy-yet-folksy feel to Humbert’s music — but Lilium often feels more cinematic and even eschews vocals altogether at times. I haven’t heard Lilium’s latest album, but 2000’s Transmission of All the Goodbyes and 2003’s Short Stories are both excellent releases, and easily step out from under 16 Horsepower’s shadow.
The Denver Gentlemen
Drawing together strands of folk, gospel, and European music, The Denver Gentlemen’s debut, Introducing…, plays like a drunken, absinthe-fueled hallucination… in a good way. While David Eugene Edwards sings like a Old Testament prophet calling people to repentance, frontman Jeffrey-Paul — who played in Sixteen Horsepower and formed the Gentlemen with Edwards — sings like an unbalanced circus barker urging you to enter the tent and take a look at the sideshows. The music swoops and dives, staggering from one note to the next, with a sense of collapse that is absolutely fascinating to listen to. Sadly, the group’s music is incredibly hard to find, aside from some YouTube clips and a few tracks on their MySpace page.