Monday, February 13, 2012

Gospel, With Bluenotes: The Mellow Fruits Of Hiss Golden Messenger's Quest For Faith

MC Taylor, a songwriter and a student of folklore, is not a declamatory man. His songs are compressed and poetic, with nary a syllable out of place. You will hear echoes of familiar things – a bit of Van Morrison’s mystical warmth, or John Martyn’s angst, and the language will be unfussy, and derived from the folk tradition.
A bit of context may be required, as Hiss Golden Messenger operate in a way that seems designed to cultivate obscurity. The group's new LP, Poor Moon, for example, is not available on CD. For now, it exists in a limited edition of 500 hand-tooled copies. (The North Carolina boutique label, Paradise Of Bachelors, is not fond of CDs, believing them to be technologically obsolete, and – with only a slight acknowledgment of the contradiction – a poor substitute for a beautiful vinyl artefact.) 
Hiss Golden Messenger is the collective name for Taylor, the principal songwriter, and his long-time cohort, Scott Hirsch. In a previous life, they both toiled in the San Francisco-based country-rock group, The Court and Spark. Taylor relocated to the rural Piedmont mill town of Pittsboro, North Carolina, to further his studies, and Hirsch moved to Brooklyn, where he works on film music.
Musically, Taylor seems to have been inspired by the move. Living in a rural environment where old-time music is not an affectation has broadened his horizons.
“There are some touchstones musically,” Taylor says, “but we’re resigned to the fact that we’re never going to sound like anyone except for ourselves. So we’re just trying to refine what it is that we do. We reference records, and we always think we’re being clever about it, but if we got down to it, I think we’d realise that we are referencing the same records time and time again.
“A lot of my work is framed by American country and western music, folk music, gospel music – American roots music, for want of a better word. I tend to use those kinds of music as a rubric when I’m writing; obviously I depart pretty significantly, but I think that there are certain lyrical motifs that exist in traditional American music, that I carry into what I do.”
Poor Moon does not sound especially like a record from 2011, but Taylor has a way of explaining the distinction between timelessness and revivalism. Hiss Golden Messenger are not, he says, “civil-war re-enactors”. “There’s all kinds of other stuff that we like and grew up together listening to. We’re always referencing John Martyn records, we’re always referencing Fairport Convention records – Full House is a really big one for both Scott and I, we’re always referencing the first couple records by The Band. A lot of this stuff comes from a time period in Western popular music when people seemed to be searching for their roots. Obviously with Fairport they were inspired by The Band to come up with an electrified English music, as the Band was doing with this melange of American musics. I like to think that we’re sort of carrying that on in some way, but obviously this is a different time period.”
So, while it may be Taylor’s ambition to adapt traditional forms, there is nothing precious about the way the music on Poor Moon unfurls. The impact is emotional, not intellectual, because this record  is the sound of a man grappling with matters which go beyond cold reason. It is a record about faith, in which the most startling song is also the least typical. That song is called ‘Jesus Shot Me In The Head’ (and you are permitted to laugh).
“Well,” Taylor explains, “it’s the most narrative tune on the record. I don’t consider myself a narrative writer, generally speaking, and Jesus Shot Me In The Head is the Exception. I’m interested in an economy of language in songs. A lot of the rhythmic qualities that appear in my songs – a lot of the way that syllables work, is not really anything that I’m getting from music at all, it’s stuff that I’m taking from poetry, a lot of Japanese poetry, which can be, its own way, sort of devotional, like haiku: Basho, Issa, Buson, Ryokan, Santoka, are all folks that I find myself referencing when I’m doing a lot of writing myself. But Jesus Shot Me In The Head – there is a story in there. I think it’s sort of a funny song. Maybe it’s couched in such a dirgey or minor key that people aren’t seeing the humour. It’s definitely a reckoning of faith. The narrator at the end says ‘At least I hope this is how it goes, cos I’m just about out of bread’ which, for me, sums up the song because it’s playing with the dogma of faith. In that song, the narrator is hedging his bets by becoming a crusader for Jesus Christ. The person in that song is saying, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m afraid of what is to come, and I am going to hedge my bets against Hell by following Jesus Christ.’ It’s cynical. But I don’t think it’s completely untrue to the relationship that a lot of people have with faith. Including myself.
“Glad you got the humour though, Every time I announce the title there’s maybe two people that laugh. It’s no more shocking than Lindsay Lohan having to report for Community Service at a morgue.”
Broadly, Poor Moon is concerned with a quest for faith. “Even prior to HGM there was at least one branch of my music that was dealing in faith. On at least the past couple of records it’s become the dominant theme. I don’t think you need to be a church-going person to wrestle with questions of faith and spirituality. Particularly in the light of having a child: you have this other human being for whom you are completely and wholly responsible. And you start to realise just how little of this earth is in your control. Now, my son is healthy, he’s happy – I consider myself fortunate – but there is this anxiety about the lack of control in my life. So part of this is: is there a way to find comfort or solace in life as we muddle through?”
On a rough count, Poor Moon is the fifth HGM album, though digital EPs and bonus releases make the tally unreliable.  Two LPs (2010’s Bad Debt, and 2009’s Country Hai East Cotton) were given a broader release on the Blackmaps label), and – to muddy things further - several of the songs from Bad Debt are reworked on Poor Moon.
“I felt like I wasn’t quite done with those songs yet,” says Taylor. “I thought it would be worth taking another look at them. Often the artists that I really loved would re-record their songs. I mean, how many times did Bert Jansch record Needle Of Death? I like different renditions of the same song – I think it’s an interesting experiment artistically, and as a listener I like the idea that a song could have a few different lives as well.”
Confusing? Yes. But perhaps that the price you pay for single-minded songcraft.  Poor Moon is a beautiful, accomplished record. The songs are autumnal, and linked by swampy sound-effects; rain here, cicadas there. In the bloody-mindedness of its vision, I was reminded of that other faith-seeking mongrel, Mike Scott, particularly in the use of gothic language: see the beautifully mellow ‘Drummer Down’, with its archaic talk of hexes, or ‘Under All The Land’, a pained strum, evoking the Israelites and Canaan-land, played out beneath a super-blue crescent moon. ‘Dreamwood’ is a sweet, wiry instrumental, channelling John Fahey, and ‘A Working Man Can’t Make It No Way’ is a straight-up overalls-on country shuffle about the travails of a hard-workin’ family which deserves to be covered by Merle Haggard.
Taylor mentions two albums as being a direct influence: Ronnie Laine’s Anymore For Anymore (for its deep humility) and Richard & Linda Thompson’s I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight, not least because it was recorded in a few days.  (Poor Moon took a week.) He talks earnestly about pursuing “an organic aesthetic”, incorporating traditional sounds within a contemporary framework.
If that makes the record sound like a yoga workshop, it isn’t. Poor Moon is gospel, played with blue notes. It is the sound of a sweet soul contemplating deliverance; as mellow and fierce and fearful as that.