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Hiss Golden Messenger - Haw

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Artist: Hiss Golden Messenger

Album: Haw

Label: Paradise of Bachelors

Review date: Mar. 26, 2013

“I come from the bottom of the river Haw,” sings M. C. Taylor in “Sweet as John Hurt.” Taylor was once of the hardcore punk band Ex-Ignota, later did time with SF’s twangy Court and Spark and now is comfortably ensconced in North Carolina’s alternative folk/country/blues environs, inviting locals like William Tyler, Phil Johnson from Megafaun, Nathan Bowles of the Black Twig Pickers and at least one member of the Bowerbirds in for this second full-length as Hiss Golden Messenger. Taylor and his long-time musical collaborator Scott Hirsch (also of Ex-Ignota, also of Court and Spark) have settled into a low-key but muscular country groove, spinning out shimmering mirages of wah-wahed overtones, blues-bent meditations on god and man, and light-footed country rambles.

Hiss Golden Messenger’s first album Poor Moon came out originally in November 2011 on the Paradise of Bachelors label in a limited run and was later picked up and reissued by Tompkins Square. The connection with Tompkins led to a spot on the Oh Michael! Chapman covers album. Hiss Golden Messenger’s “Fennario” was one of the few on the disc to capture Chapman’s rough masculine energy, the ragged wear and tear that makes his lines so memorable. Haw is, likewise, bristly, indelicate, often beautiful but never precious. It bursts with life.

Haw borrows freely from a bunch of rural musical genres, sticking generally to folk-ish acoustic blues, but dipping also into slinky, Stax-style R&B, bluegrass and Neil Young-esque country rock. “Red Rose Nantahala” -- with its fat glistening bass line, its twitchy upbeats, its chinking, swishing cymbal beat -- has the same hypnotic sway as reggae, though filtered through a blues-ish scrim. “All the creatures with their folk guitars won’t let me be the one I want,” sings Taylor, against a back-slanting, heel-rocking beat, bent notes and pull-offs morphing into strange mirage-like shapes. He’s genuine and authentic without being, in any sense, a purist.

One of Taylor’s best assets is his voice, its surface pocked and criss-crossed with fissures and abrasions. If he were an instrument, he’d be a saxophone, blowing out the notes in long, variegated improvisations, the tones blurring with breath at their edges. As it is, he favors tone and emotional content over lyrical clarity, stretching vowels and obliterating consonants as he slurs and flutters toward the end of lines. Occasionally, he is joined by Sonia Turner at the chorus, and the weightless loveliness of her voice buoys him up into the ether.

“Devotion” is the album’s best, a slow country ballad where Terry Lonergan’s drums are tuned so loose you can hear the drum skin flapping against the sides. Guitar tones, too, are loosened almost to dissolution, spreading out in tremolo’d vibration like oil on water. The song is laid-back and ruminative with lots of room between the notes, as much unsaid as stated in the lyrics. When a violin swoops in mid-cut, it’s a tipsy, ghostly kind of sound, apparently solid but giving way like spider-web at the intervals.

Elsewhere, on “I’ve Got a Name for the Newborn Child” and “The Serpent is Kind (Compared to Man),” the band dips further into country, a breezy insouciance in the picking, a burned in world-weariness in the voice. There’s a nod to the bluesman, not the actor in “Sweet as John Hurt” and a giddy homage to string bands in the brief, instrumental “Hark Maker (Glory Rag).”

Yet, whether Hiss Golden Messenger is whooping it up country style or slinking and slithering in a late-night approximation of Stax-ish soul, there’s a directness in its attack. These songs don’t refer to certain styles of music, they embody them, contradict them, warp them and, in the process, breathe life into them. If that’s what scares all those people with their folk guitars, I’d say bring it on.

By Jennifer Kelly

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