Sunday, November 06, 2016

Hiss Golden Messenger Holds Back The Flood

Heart Like a Levee and Vestapol both feature photos by William Gedney
"You can't choose your blues but you might as well own them."
- from Tell Her I'm Just Dancing by M.C. Taylor

M.C. Taylor knows the wisdom of a tambourine, sunk deep in the groove like a clock carrying your burden of time. He knows the warmth of the horn section that comes in just at the right moment, perfect as the key in the lock of a lover's long-awaited return. And he knows how a few notes on a piano can speak volumes more than even the most well-turned lyric. In short, Taylor, who performs and records as Hiss Golden Messenger, is a genius record-maker as much as he is a brilliant songwriter and a gritty-sweet singer. I've met the guy a couple of times and he is as humble as can be - he would probably give credit for much of the above to his superb co-producer Bradley Cook, who certainly plays a large role. But note whose name is on the record, who calls the final shots, and who stands at the front of the stage every night. 

Your iTunes might still classify Heart Like A Levee as folk, and that is indeed where Taylor sowed his seeds since beginning the HGM project. But there has always been a drive to his music, and a lack of orthodoxy, that makes it something other than that. This is even more true on the new album, which is open to a broader range of influences than Lateness of Dancers, his breakthrough record from 2014. Tinges of a fully-owned L.A. slickness give new life to the heartland gospel-soul-folk-rock. There's also new sense of the epic and cinematic, especially on songs such as Like a Mirror Loves a Hammer and Ace of Cups Hung Low Band. The first is a ruthless engine of interlocking parts, driven forward by a tube-driven swamp fire of a guitar that I figure must've been played by either Phil Cook, Brad's brother and a frequent Taylor collaborator (and a great artist in his own right) or Ryan Gustafson, a bit of a guitar wizard who performs as The Dead Tongues. Ace of Cups starts quiet, the credits rolling over a 70mm landscape, before locking into a soaring verse that sounds like a never-ending ending. Finality is not always a static state. 

The visual quality of many of the songs comes naturally, as Taylor was inspired not only by his own life but by the "durable and humane photographic vision" of William Gedney, who traveled the world capturing complex portraits of whole communities. Gedney's archive is housed at Duke University, which is where many of these songs were premiered after the school commissioned a project from Taylor. Great realist photographers like Gedney present an alternate way of seeing the completely recognizable world. While I think these new perspectives have enriched Taylor's art, I wouldn't put too much weight on the Gedney connection - Taylor is a protean artist who keeps moving forward no matter what.

Lyrically, Taylor has gotten bolder with his mix of the imagistic, mythic, prosaic, and the literary. Cracked Window zig zags in a couple of different directions with an intuitive grace: "Monday morning early, getting the kids to school/I can fix this, babe-I can fix this, babe/I can see the ghosts coming over the tidewater plains/I don't know if I'm running." He heads into some dark territory but there is often light visible, a dewy new dawn just arriving, or close enough. From Highland Grace: "I'd been searching in the mirror, but seeing my own face didn't make it any clearer/I'd rage against the hard times while others smiled to say, "Hey, take it easy."/And lo, this little angel was standing in the rain/Oh just what I needed." Words and music both are slightly soaked in the perception of an altered consciousness. Even Say It Like You Mean It, as straightforward a country-rock song as Taylor would release, contains the lines "Desire/Like a wire/Lead the choir/Tripping on that Orange County Wine."

Likely Taylor is more tired than high, however; there's an underlying theme found in the contradiction of being a devoted family man whose growing success, while elevating him as a provider, finds him often on the road, away from the ones he loves. This comes through in As The Crow Flies, which delineates a series of tour stops and has a chorus concluding "Don't get down/You're nothing but a number," all over a lockstep groove reminiscent of Turn Out The Lights from Lou Reed's Legendary Hearts.  But there's no self-pity, he's just a conscientious man with a bent for self-examination, trying to do what's right both for his art and his family.

Although it might not help with the fatigue, one thing Taylor does to deal with his concerns is work. The deluxe edition of Heart Like a Levee comes with Vestapol, a bonus album of eight more songs "Written and produced by M.C. Taylor at home, and in various hotels and apartments." He could just have been watching Game Of Thrones on HBO Go but instead he was creating. These are spare but fully realized songs, the occasional sweetening somehow amplifying an intimacy that is a privilege to witness. It's also great to hear some of Taylor's intricate and hypnotic fingerpicking - so beautifully in evidence when I saw him perform solo in Prospect Park last summer - Elizabeth Cotten would be gratified. If you're already in the Hiss Golden Messenger camp you were probably going to go deluxe anyway, but Vestapol really delivers, unlike some bonus tracks.

Like all of Taylor's work, both Heart Like a Levee and Vestapol display a heartfelt creative spirit that is dedicated to giving people something of value. However, it doesn't always come easy, as is evident in another couplet from Cracked Windshield: "A song is just a feeling and when you make it pay the rent/Next thing that you know, you're saying something you'd never say." Least of your worries, M.C., least of your worries. 

Hiss Golden Messenger's music takes on bit of a different tone in concert, adding a roadhouse backbeat and bringing songs to new heights through ecstatic extended passages. On stage, I think the only weight on Taylor's shoulders is a white Telecaster or an acoustic guitar and it's a beautiful thing to experience. I can't wait to be there on November 15th when Taylor and Co. rock the Music Hall of Williamsburg. I highly recommend you check into tour dates near you ASAP and get to the show. You'll get the message, loud and clear.

You may also enjoy:
Long Time Coming
New Americana, Pt. 1: Phil Cook
Best of 14 (Part 2)

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