I can very clearly remember the day I first heard 16 Horsepower. I’d just finished college and moved back home, living in my parent’s basement and selling CDs at the Canadian equivalent of Best Buy until I could turn up a job in my field. A friend online mentioned this very dark, very intense, almost country band she’d just seen open up for The Innocence Mission. On the strength of her recommendation, I dug up copies of Sackcloth ‘N’ Ashes and the Haw EP and brought them home. From the very first listen I was simply enthralled. There was nothing else out there like this. There never was, and I doubt there ever will be.
This was the spirit of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor distilled down and put to tape. This was the madness of the deep south, all sex and violence and religion. Fire and blood and spirit. The vengeful God of the Old Testament walking the earth and calling down judgment. Needless to say, the band was never able to sell more than a handful of records for A&M and quickly slipped from the ranks of the major labels, scrambling to make a living as they jumped from label to label with every subsequent release and hoping to one day find a favorable home for their music. It looks as though they’ve now found that with Jetset Records, who released their most recent studio effort, Folklore, and are now bringing out Olden, a collection of the band’s early demos and live material.
Olden is divided neatly into three segments. Six tracks are lifted from a 1993 demo session, six more from a 1994 session, and the final six come from a 1994 live show. Breaking the segments up are a pair of interviews which don’t really add all that much to the proceedings other than explaining just what the hell A&M was thinking when they signed such an obviously non-commercial act to their roster.
All the tracks but one — the excellent “Train Serenade” written by original bassist Kevin Soll — would appear in re-recorded form on the band’s later records, so if you’re looking for a stack of unreleased material you’re not going to find it. What you will get is the recorded infancy of one of the most distinct voices in American music today. The tracks here all have a raw intensity to them; the power of the band’s live performances has obviously been with them right from the early days and they did an excellent job of capturing that power throughout these early recordings. It’s also somewhat shocking just how fully formed the band’s sound was right from the beginning.
As is the case with most collections of this type, Olden is probably not an essential release unless you already happen to be fairly fanatical about the band. But every fan of 16 Horsepower that I’ve ever come across has been somewhat rabid in their devotion, which means virtually all of them will want to have this in their collection. Yes, you’ve probably already got these songs, but these are alternate recordings — in some cases the arrangements are strikingly different — that capture the raw essence of the band. Plus, since A&M’s closure, copies of the band’s early releases are becoming increasingly difficult to come by and Olden could soon become the only way anybody will ever hear these cuts. If you came to the band late, this is your chance to fill in some holes in your collection, and if you’re looking to get started, this is a good place to begin.
Written by Chris Brown.