I’m still not entirely sure how I discovered Hiss Golden Messenger, though I strongly suspect it had something to do with the fantastic music blog, Aquarium Drunkard . In 2013 Haw made its way into my music library, and I went down the rabbit hole to explore the rest of their discography.
Hiss Golden Messenger began as a duo. At its core were singer/songwriter M.C. Taylor and producer/ multi-instrumentalist Scott Hirsch. The two have known each other since college at University of California Santa Barbara, where they collaborated on a hardcore band, Ex-Ignota. Not much is left from that old band, save a documentary directed by then college friend Jack Johnson.
Thankfully, for longevity’s sake, M.C. Taylor and Hirsch decided to move on to a wholly different form of music, and started another band, The Court and Spark, taking their name from a 1974 Joni Mitchell LP. That music seemed serene compared to their roots as hardcore punks, and though the alternative country scene was booming in the early aughts, The Court and Spark didn’t bring the duo enough success to really live out their lives as musicians. They decided to pack up for the east coast; Hirsch to Brooklyn to study music engineering, Taylor to North Carolina to study folklore at Chapel Hill.
There is where Hiss Golden Messenger truly begins. The move originated out of necessity, to live in a place where the money could stretch out a little more. M.C Taylor and his wife came to Saralyn in 2009, a once hippie refuge that was about as bare bones as one could get, surrounded by the forest, and intimate to the point of abandonment. It was there, with his wife and new infant son, that Taylor recorded Bad Debt an album that was recorded at Taylor’s kitchen table with only a 4 track tape recorder, his acoustic guitar, and his voice, reedy and ruddy like the reddish gloaming of a night in mid summer.
That spare proceeding allowed Taylor to latch on to a sound, a world content to hum in the middle, a world Taylor, perhaps with just a bit of tongue in cheek, credits to a unique guitar tuning that allowed him to blur the lines between simple major and minor. It wasn’t a large release, and it seemed Fate had picked a side when rioting in London led to the destruction of a warehouse that held most of Bad Debt when it was slated for international release.
The folly of man might have destroyed a lesser musician, but Bad Debt had fallen into enough hands before it’s untimely destruction that people had taken interest in the folkloric reverie of Hiss Golden Messenger.
Poor Moon (2011)was next, and the first in the triumvirate of Hiss Golden Messenger’s next few impeccable releases. It’s at parts Beck’s Sea Changes, at parts Van Morrison mysticism, and beautifully crafted. Happy accidents litter the album, like the introduction to “Drummer Down” where Taylor and Hirsch blend unfinished and final product. It’s ultimately an arresting introduction to the full power of Hiss Golden Messenger, and Taylor’s fully formed lyrics which blend the South’s gospel with universal musings of humanism.
I remember reading East of Eden by John Steinbeck, and how I was absolutely transfixed by the description of the locale, the sweeping valleys and rolling hills and the flora and fauna that populated Salinas County. If I could have bottled that up into a record, Haw would be it’s spiritual result. I’ve never been so truly imbued with a sense of love for culture and locale. Haw is of course named after the river that winds through the Piedmont county of North Carolina, and the long lost Indian tribe from which the river gets its name. It’s a record that seems locked away in the golden hour, on a porch overlooking the rolling clay hills in North Carolina.
Haw is an album that I could listen to over and over (and I already have) just on a pure production level. “The Serpent Is Kind (Compared to Man)” is a absolute highlight, a song I’d love to tackle on my own. With Haw, Hiss Golden Messenger proved they were getting somewhere commercially, even drawing attention from Justin Vernon, better known as Bon Iver.
The success of Haw helped land Hiss Golden Messenger a record contract with Merge, an independent label based out of North Carolina and a perfect setting for the songwriter who loves his adopted home. 2014 found the release of Lateness of Dancers his major label debut, with golden country thumper “Lucia” leading off the affair.
The timeless nature of Taylor’s craft isn’t only due to his devotion to the southern folkloric craft (Lateness of Dancers draws its title from a line in Eudora Welty’s novel, Delta Wedding), but his willingness to re-approach early work. Pretty much all the material found on Bad Debt gets a full band reworking on his later albums, where every nuance is explored and realized. Even Lateness of Dancers opener”Lucia” dated back to a tune written with The Court & Spark.
This isn’t due to some egotism on Taylor’s part. As he remarked in an interview with Uncut Magazine, “I’m just lucky, I guess. I’ve had a lot of practice at writing songs, and for some reason I’ve stuck with it. I felt like it was something that was important in my life, and it took me a really long time to figure out how to make a song that felt genuine to me, and seemed to affect other people. And y’know, part of that is maybe a gift, but a lot of it is just sweat and grinding it out. I can write some good songs that people enjoy. But it took 20 years.”
It seemed like all that hard work is paying off, in the form of finding a larger audience. Heart Like A Levee followed Lateness of Dancers in 2016 and found brothers Phil and Brad Cook taking an even larger role in the family nature of the Hiss Golden Messenger collective. Festival appearances grew more frequent, and even members of The National were beginning to take notice and commend HGM as their favorite band of late. Yet Heart Like A Levee also found M.C. Taylor at a creative crossroads.
He had been keeping a day job as Hiss Golden Messenger was slowly growing, and the nature of a musician trying to break through is an act of endless touring, a Sisyphean task that few do with any luxury or comforts of home. But with the release of Heart Like A Levee, he quit to focus on music.
Now, only a year after that release, Hiss Golden Messenger is back with Hallelujah, Anyhow. It’s in part a response to the turbulent times in the United States, but more than that, it’s an affirmation that HGM’s message is always relevant and welcome. Though M.C. Taylor remains as ruminative as ever, the album was recorded in the span of 2 days at the studio, a whirlwind approach that reflects how much this group has come into its own as a unit. Much has, and will be said about the album closer, “When The Wall Comes Down” as being the closest to direct political commentary that Hiss Golden Messenger has put on a record.
M.C Taylor has expansive and eclectic taste in music, something that has been an intrinsic part of his musical identity throughout his career in music. I wish I could still access the Wah Wah Cowboys compilation he put together in the early days of Hiss Golden Messenger when people still used Blogspot. But that knowledge is evident anyway, as Hallelujah Anyhow finds a home in the same musical idioms of some of his favorite influences, Ronnie Lane & Slim Chance, The Faces, and Van Morrison.
Hallelujah Anyhow manages to capture the current moment and be a record that begs to be worn into the groove. The energy in this record is as much of a highlight as the little details that come with it. “John the Gun” is a highlight, with great saxophone work by Michael Lewis that fleshes out the coda. “Gulfport You’ve Been On My Mind” reaches into a spiritual catharsis that hitches along the refrain while “Caledonia, My Love” pitches a narrative shift along with gorgeous piano work that makes you wish it went on just a little longer.
Halleljuah Anyhow was released September 22, 2017. You can purchase the record either from your local record store or directly from Merge or Bandcamp. You can also stream it on Spotify or Apple Music, and listen to “John the Gun” below.