Friday, December 28, 2007

Woven Hand - "Mosaic" (Glitterhouse 2006)

David Eugene Edwards is perhaps the most iconoclastic musician working in popular music today. 16 Horsepower, his previous project, began as an exploration of Appalachian folk and country with Edwards' use of dramatic, heavily Christian themed lyrics lending it an air of authenticity lacking in most other bands mining the same vein then or since. By Secret South, the bands third record, Edwards had taken the band in a more experimental direction, and the lackluster Folklore, 16 Horsepower's final release, half-heartedly continued this trend. The disappointment of Folklore can likely be attributed to the fact that, by the time the album was being recorded, Edwards was pouring his creative energy into Woven Hand (16 Horsepower is the only band I've heard of citing "political and religious differences" as the reason for their breakup). In spite of giving the impression that there's a functioning band at work Woven Hand is, quite simply, what Edwards is calling his solo work (all I know about the provenance of the name is that it's a really obscure Bible reference - you'll have to look elsewhere for chapter and verse). Working as a solo artist has given Edwards the freedom to more deeply explore experimental song structures and instrumentation and deep, heavily Christian themes of sin and redemption.

With each release Woven Hand has strayed farther and farther from Edwards' unerring pop sensibility and into experimental realms, pulling influences from Middle Eastern, American Indian, and Eastern European musical instrumentation and structures (among others less prevalent). His dark vision of the sinful path, reflected in the music and lyrics, and humanity's one and only source of redemption has become more and more apparent and increasingly fundamentalist in spite of his use of arcane biblical references to spin his tales. So much so that it can make a committedly non-religious person like myself uncomfortable.

Mosaic, Woven Hand's fourth release, builds on this trend and takes Edward's music farther afield than any release yet. From the ominous, sparse instrumental opener "Breathing Bull", which seamlessly transitions into the heavily Middle Eastern influenced Bible beater "Winter Shaker", you know you've entered David Eugene Edwards' universe and you're in for a soul tempering wild ride. These songs eschew any traditional song structures for the most part and focus on mood and intensity, both of which are unbelievably heavy. The mood is almost relentlessly dark, focusing on sin and the failure to abide God's word. The lyrics always mention the path to redemption in some form or other but also stress the fact that, in this vision, anyway, the way is so hard it's damn near impossible to follow without constant, severe diligence and unquestioning faith.

The instrumentation on this record includes, and I'm guessing on some of these, guitar, banjo, piano, violin, organ, bass, standard drums, tympani drums, guiro, sorna, chemnitzer concertina, and, I'm pretty sure, didgeridoo. The tympani, concertina and didgeridoo maintain a constant low end drone on almost every track, lending the songs the ominous quality that has almost become signature for Edwards work. The guitar, where it appears, serves as both a rhythm and melody instrument - especially apparent on "Truly Golden", one of the more accessible songs on the record. The organ serves a similar purpose, alternately contributing to the ominous background wall and serving as a cathedral like melody instrument. Violin and sorna are reserved for song melody and contribute heavily, along with much of the percussion, to the pervasive Middle Eastern feel of the record.

Relief from the overwhelming Christian thematics appears in "Swedish Purse", which lyrically suggests it is a love song to Edwards' wife. Don't let the fact that it's a love song lead you to believe that you get a break from the overall sonic darkness - that remains heavy as hell (no pun intended). There is a break from the doom laden musical bent in "Bible and Bird" - a loping, country/folk instrumental in a standard 4/4 time signature. As this is the only song with musicians other than Edwards credited it makes a kind of sense that it would be the most traditionally structured piece - good luck to the most experienced musician trying to follow the logic of almost any other song on the record.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention production. Edwards is credited as producer (as he has been on every Woven Hand release) and his production is, as you have probably gathered, a dark, dense, wall of sound with very little open range. While this would be too much for many recordings it works pretty effectively considering what Edward is communicating here and often places the songs in a geographic context.

Mosaic is not a good starter album for the casual listener - hard-core fans only and those drawn to the esoteric (and perhaps some world music afficianados) will appreciate what's going on here. A good place to begin with Edwards is any of the first three 16 Horsepower records (Sackcloth & Ashes, Low Estate, and Secret South) or even the eponymously titled first Woven Hand record will do - Edwards natural ability with pop structures and hooks married to relatively unusual instrumentation will give you a good foundation from which to continue.

As a long-time and devoted fan I think this record is a knock-out. Edwards is without a doubt one of the most creative and unusual musicians out there, and the farther out he goes the more I seem to like it. The allure of the music and the poetic nature of the lyrics is strong enough to shield me from the discomfort of the heavy-handed Christian thematics. I'll venture to say the same will be true for the majority of listeners. It helps that I respect Edwards' beliefs even if I don't agree with them.

Edwards is an admitted fan of Nick Cave (as am I) and the similarities still show through his experimentation. I would say he's the light in response to Nick Cave's darkness, but there's plenty of darkness here. Let's say instead that, while Cave's songs are almost universally existential and hopeless, Edwards provides his listeners with at least a single strand of hope. I'll leave it up to you to decide which is better.

Rating: 4 out of 4

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