Hiss Golden Messenger - Lateness of Dancers

by David Bruggink Rating:8.5 Release Date:2014-09-15
On Lateness of Dancers, his first album for Merge Records, Hiss Golden Messenger (aka M.C. Taylor) continues to prove his mastery of a brand of Americana that has enough whiskey and honeyed drawl for hipsters to feel that they've had a genuinely bucolic experience without having to associate with the red state baggage of country music or the elfin daintiness of folk. You might think that implies a certain pretentiousness in the work of this native Californian, but in fact he toes the line between hook-laden country-rock and ambling back-porch folk with a sincerity that suggests he's fully assimilated into his new surroundings in North Carolina.

Taylor is joined by a handful of talented musicians, including William Tyler, Phil and Brad Cook of Megafaun, and Alexandra Sauser-Monnig of Mountain Man. As Bad Debt showed, Hiss Golden Messenger songs consisting of nothing more than Taylor's vocals and acoustic guitar - kitchen-table recording quality and all - can sometimes have a purity and poignancy that his full-band songs don't quite achieve. Nevertheless, his collaborators provide an organic extension of Taylor's stellar songwriting ability, gleaming with pedal steel, banjo, piano, organ, and snatches of tremolo guitar orbiting around Taylor's delectable vocals.
 
Those familiar with earworms like 'I've Got a Name for the Newborn Child,' 'Blue Country Mystic,' and 'Drummer Down' will find a few here as well, such as 'Saturday's Song' and 'Mahogany Dread.' There are also, however, austere and slow-burning numbers like the title track, where Taylor's plaintive singing and deliberate strumming emerge among chirping insects on a country evening, as well as bluesier tracks like 'Southern Grammar' and 'I'm a Raven (Shake Children).'

Like the music of this immaculately produced album, Taylor's lyrics provide a depth that rewards the listener on close listening. One can catch glimpses of quasi-religious imagery - 'Saturday's Song' mentions "the lamb and the four swords," and on 'Southern Grammar,' he sings, less cryptically, "One day I tried to kneel... but I could not" - and he has a gift for crafting phrases that express an ambiguous relationship to both his own situation and the pervasive religious background of his current setting.
 
For example, the refrain of 'Drum' appears at first to be an injunction not uncommon in gospel music - to "take the good news, and carry it away," presumably to the ends of the earth, à la Acts 1:8. But he could also be recommending that the "good news," frequently manifested in American culture by the charlatan television evangelist, or the legalistic religious organization, would be better off spirited away from us.

Even if you don’t take the time to probe his enigmatic poetry, M.C. Taylor’s voice - rough-hewn, yet refined - is one that could be listened to for hours. Perhaps his best album yet, Lateness of Dancers suggests an artist whose comfort in his own skin, and immense talent, belie his only recent rise to popularity.

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