Wovenhand The Threshingfloor

[Sounds Familyre; 2010]

Styles: Americana, incendiary gospel, folk rock, idiosyncratic front man
Others: Beirut, Destroyer, Okkervil River, Frog Eyes, the Hans Zimmer score to Gladiator

Gimmickry of any kind will only go so far. Colorado resident and ex-16 Horsepower front man David Eugene Edwards’ Wovenhand returns for its seventh (!) record, the follow-up to 2008’s widely-lauded Ten Stones, with an exploration of a different ethnomusical palette, and it’s one that paints an ambivalent picture. Whereas Ten Stones explored the sounds of middle America — one of mile-high mountains and masculine morality — with an admirable clarity, The Threshingfloor takes up the instruments of Europe and the Middle East, and in the process muddles itself a little.

The upside is that the songwriting itself comes across as strong as Wovenhand’s ever has. Driving, feverish numbers like “Terre Haute” (“It is he who paints by numbers”) and epic, Balkan-sounding ones like “Orchard Gate” (“His loving intention”) certainly espouse the talent and ambition Edwards brings to every recording. He never sings about anything frivolous or light; he’s the opposite of the Wavves of the world, and even his non-verbal choices reflect just that. Just as “A Holy Measure” contains lines such as “Lord Jesus, lone keeper of the law/ I am with Him in the garden” and “He says come” — indeed, most of the lyrics are about Christ — instrumentally the track communicates in throbbing percussion and minor melodies. There’s flute in the background, but it’s more sinister than bright: a harbinger of peril rather than a celebratory voice. Everything sounds like Eastern Europe, snaking and oblique, full of twists and turns.

Everything, that is, except two tracks. “Raise Her Hands” smacks unexpectedly of American Indian music, twisted inside something of a demented waltz. And in the strangest choice of all, closer “Denver City” is straight-up Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen America. My ambivalence continues; is it brilliant or stupid to take an album that seemed sonically to cry “Danger!” from the mountaintops and end it with an almost painfully major country rock romper with a “That’s the spirit!” refrain? This confusing final selection just compounds the almost contradictory nature of the record. Although the ubiquitous bottom-heavy percussion is often compelling and the intermittent tracks quite likable, the distracting instrumentation and painfully highfalutin’ mythic lyricism, for me, ends in annoyance.

To be fair, Edwards didn’t intend his choice of instrumentation to be a gimmick, as far as we know. I don’t mean to imply that the record is disingenuous; he may have honestly and in good faith been intrigued by these musical timbres and wanted to use them, which is wonderful. More artists probably should allow unusual sounds to influence them and lead them away from the narrow confines of what has traditionally limited folk and rock. But the overall effect of these unfamiliar sonorities saturating The Threshingfloor is just that: saturation. In the end, it seems drippy and a little hackneyed, tired from overuse and painted a touch sloppily over a lyrics sheet that, while not unpoetic, risks banality even as it tries to reach unheard heights. Maybe Edwards wasn’t being gimmicky when he utilized the Hungarian shepherd’s flute or the saz (a string instrument from Turkey), but it sounds like he was, and to me, that makes all the difference.

Links: Wovenhand - Sounds Familyre

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