If you’ve spent any time perusing the pages of Opus, they you’ll know that we’re pretty big fans of anything and everything related to 16 Horsepower. And why shouldn’t we be? The posse of Denver musicians under 16 Horsepower’s umbrella is putting out some of the best American music today. Few “scenes” (for lack of a better term) are so fully realized or display as much conviction and sense of purpose in their music, and few are as rewarding for the listener who takes the time (and money, since a criminal lack of support here at home has led to a number of import-only releases) to seek them out.
The beauty of this loose cadre is twofold. On the one hand, there’s a remarkable consistency that flows throughout this band of musicians. If you enjoy one artist, there’s an extremely good chance that you’ll find most of the others right up your alley as well. Many share a similar musical and lyrical theme, combining a dark, almost gothic take on traditional American folk music with a haunted spirituality that’s as much Flannery O’Connor as it is Old Testament.
On the other hand, each artist’s music is more than able to stand on its own merits. There’s very little risk of one getting lost in the crowd, or coming off as derivative of any of the others. For instance, there’s little chance that you’d mistake the atmospherics of Woven Hand with The Denver Gentlemen’s drunken circus music (though together, they would make for heckuva concert bill).
Not surprisingly, Lilium fits both of those statements to the T. It shouldn’t come as any great shock to learn that both Pascal Humbert (the group’s founding member) and Jean-Yves Tola have both had extensive stints in 16 Horsepower. And yet, Lilium carve out their own special niche within the Denver pantheon, existing somewhere between Woven Hand’s atmosphere and The Denver Gentlemen’s’ swagger, and they fill it extremely well.
Although Humbert and Tola are the group’s driving force, Short Stories is actually a larger collaborative effort. Humbert and Tola assume an almost background role, using guitars, organs, melodicas, and percussion to craft delicate sketches which they then turn over to others to color in and complete. I’d imagine that involves quite a bit of trust on Humbert and Tola’s part, but when you turn it over to members of Sixteen Horsepower, Woven Hand, The Czars, and Morphine working with your music, it couldn’t be in better bands.
As a result of this approach, Short Stories is like a small-scale replica the Denver “scene.” The duo’s involvement ensures the album’s consistency, while the collaborations ensure that each song its own unique aspects. In a way, Lilium reminds me of a sepia-toned version of This Mortal Coil, 4AD legendary house band and another collaborative effort that resulted in stunningly diverse, yet cohesive albums like It’ll End In Tears.
“If They Cheered,” with its woozy accordion and Kim Cahoone’s tired vocals, recalls a sadder, more tragic version of Yann Tiersen’s Amelie score. David Eugene Edwards lends his fiery voice and scorching lyrics to “Whitewashed”; against a solemn backdrop of skeletal piano, processional drums, and groaning voices, he implores “Don’t come around my dreams no more/With a fist full of stick/Come in the smile of Elijah/He’s the lord and healer of the sick.”
A spidery slide guitar intertwines with Jim Kalin’s nasally vocals as he weaves a sordid tale of love and obsession (“Chased her up through Johnson City/Led a bloodhound by the trail/”) that suddenly explodes with all the swagger and menace of two gunfighters staring each other down. The album delivers another sordid tale of love and heartache with “Sorry”; this time, Cahoone’s seductive vocals drift by in Spanish, with Tom Barman’s eerie voice sighing back in response.
By themselves, songs such as these would make for a great album. However, two songs turn Short Stories from a great album into something far higher and grander.
The first, “Sense and Grief,” leaves me a complete wreck every time I hear it. From the graceful, melancholy-soaked guitars and delicate piano flourishes, to Daniel McMahon’s wounded vocals and abstract lyrics (“Lying down in sense and grief/Inventiveness, like buying something sweet), to the gorgeous finale, there’s more aching beauty in this one track alone than in the whole of Silver Mt. Zion’s latest effort. The second, “The Trap,” is graced by John Grant’s gorgeous voice and aching words (“Is it any wonder/I’ve fallen in love/With falling in and out of love with you”), which soar effortlessly over building guitars, lush keys, and Dana Colley’s bluesy sax.
Although Short Stories originally came out on Glitterhouse Records (that stalwart German label that has shown more support for these bands than most of their American labels combined), it’s being released here in the U.S. on Twist & Shout Records. To sweeten the deal (and ease the pain for American listeners who’ve been denied this music for far too long), 3 bonus tracks close out the album. These solemn, arid instrumentals were originally composed for the short film The Rain Has Forgotten Us, and seem fitting for the story of a farmer’s family caught in the grips of a drought.
If you’re a rabid 16 Horsepower fan — and I don’t know too many fans who aren’t — there’s a very good chance you’ve already paid import prices for this album and it’s currently nestled in quite snugly amongst your Sixteen Horsepower, Woven Hand, Denver Gentlemen, Czars, and Slim Cessna’s Auto Club discs.
However, if you’re just now dipping your toes into this talented scene of musicians, or if you enjoy the music of any of the bands mentioned throughout this review in the slightest way, there’s no reason for you to not own Short Stories. It’s a stunning piece of work, and yet another solid release from one of the most consistent groups of musicians currently working in North America.