Over the summer, I got pretty hooked on a playlist/mixtape thing, “Wah Wah Cowboys”, that turned up on a blog called The Old Straight Track. A triumph of early ‘70s crate-digging, “Wah Wah Cowboys” located a high place where country and country-rock found a groove, and packed a fair few revelations into 45 minutes.
Who could tell that the good-time trucking opener, “Cross Country”, was the work of an inveterate pub-rocker from Southend, Mickey Jupp? Why hadn’t anyone told me before about “Scorpio Woman”, by Link Wray’s Mordicai Jones project? And where on earth was I going to find the first two solo albums by the man who produced Gene Clark’s “No Other”, Thomas Jefferson Kaye?
A mixtape can be immensely potent, sending you on an odyssey across the internet, via a few second-hand stores, and opening up arcane seams in rock history. That’s how “Wah Wah Cowboys” worked for me. New music, though, can also tap into deep scenes, and that goes for the records made by the curator of The Old Straight Track, Michael Taylor. Taylor is a folklorist, currently living somewhere beautiful in North Carolina, who used to front a San Francisco band, Court And Spark, that I can’t honestly remember too well.
Over the past year or two, Taylor has quietly disseminated a couple of records by his new band, Hiss Golden Messenger, both of which have a strong insidious quality, and which come imbued with Taylor’s profound knowledge and understanding of vintage sounds. The first, from 2009, is a studio CD called “Country Hai East Cotton”, heavy with Laurel Canyon vibes, which sits comfortably in between fellow travellers PG Six and Brightblack Morning Light.
The second, from earlier this year, is a vinyl-only number called “Root Work”, which revisits a bunch of “Country Hai” songs for a radio session, and gives them a looser, less tentative treatment. “Touchstones, as I see them, would be Traffic‘s “Low Spark Of High-Heeled Boys”, possibly some live Dead, some vintage-era Tubby/Jammy,” Michael wrote to me at the time, and he had a point.
Those two records came out on Taylor’s Heaven & Earth Magic Recording Company, but for the forthcoming “Bad Debt” EP, Hiss Golden Messenger have stepped on to a UK label, Blackmaps, hired a publicist and begun moving slowly overground. With some perversity, “Bad Debt” is substantially rougher-sounding than its crafted predecessors: just Taylor and his guitar, at home over last winter, essaying nine folk-soul nuggets that recall at least one of the Sacred Tims; Hardin, probably. Even in the rawest state, though, these are powerful songs, not least because of their peculiar mix of fervid Christian visions and hardbitten outlaw country, “Jesus Shot Me In The Head” being the most extreme example of Taylor’s mighty engaging schtick.
The blend reminds me a little of Wooden Wand, who coincidentally has two good albums out this month, “Death Seat” and “Wither Thou Goest, Cretin”.