Album review

Hiss Golden Messenger - Poor Moon

Hiss Golden Messenger - Poor Moon

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.

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”. So, while Taylor can talk about his ambition to follow the lead of The Band and Fairport Convention by adapting and re-tooling traditional forms, there is nothing precious about the way the music unfurls. The impact is emotional, not intellectual, because (i)Poor Moon(i) 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).

A bit of context may be required, as Hiss Golden Messenger operate in a way that seems designed to cultivate obscurity. (i)Poor Moon(i), 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, but purists should be aware that Taylor’s lyrics are as inspired by Japanese haiku as they are by hillbilly tropes. This is no costume drama, remember.

On a rough count, (i)Poor Moon(i) is the fifth HGM album, though digital EPs and bonus releases make the tally unreliable. Two LPs (2010’s (i)Bad Debt(i), and 2009’s (i)Country Hai East Cotton(i)) were given a broader release on the Blackmaps label), and – to muddy things further - several of the songs from (i)Bad Debt(i) are reworked on (i)Poor Moon(i).

Confusing? Yes. But perhaps that the price you pay for single-minded songcraft. (i)Poor Moon(i) 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 (i)Anymore For Anymore(i) (for its deep humility) and Richard & Linda Thompson’s (i)I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight(i), not least because it was recorded in a few days. ((i)Poor Moon(i) 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. (i)Poor Moon(i) is gospel, played with blue notes. It is the sound of a sweet soul contemplating deliverance; as mellow and fierce and fearful as that.
Alastair Mc Kay

Q&A: MC TAYLOR
What was your plan for the album?
“There are some touchstones musically, 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."

What are they?
“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."

Which artists do you keep returning to?
"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."
INTERVIEW: ALASTAIR MCKAY

Rating: 8 / 10

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