Release Date: Sep 9, 2014
Record label: Merge
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock
Though North Carolina-based MC Clarke and his longtime recording partner and collaborator Scott Hirsch have been making music since they were 17, it’s the creeping reality of fatherhood and letting go of the past that informs their magnificent fifth album, a disc of such staggering spiritual depth that the title track itself is almost too much to bear. It’s a given that Hiss Golden Messenger operate along organic lines and make labyrinthine music that stands shoulder-high with the giants of the past – the Dead, Little Feat, JJ Cale, The Band – but now they sound ready to blow up. Californian émigré Clarke is an existentialist in heavy work boots who can give you optimism and a side order of ambition, then dash it all in a moment.
Hiss Golden Messenger’s MC Taylor has often used his woody caw to sing of how unscrupulous believers use religious salvation as a get-out clause for their worst behaviour. The implication is that the North Carolina songwriter may also have been guilty of this; on his fifth record he rues, “Lord, I loved the outlaw life”, before admitting that it’s time to stop running and start the hard-won fight for internal peace. Accordingly, ‘Lateness Of Dancers’ is an Americana record of immense spiritual and musical grace, the arrangements sparer than on its ornate predecessor, ‘Haw’: sometimes it recalls Fleetwood Mac’s most AM-friendly moments, while songs like the grave title-track hum with the dewy possibility of new mornings.
For M.C. Taylor, the longstanding traditions of American music have been a firm guide throughout his career. As the 38-year-old Southern California-raised musician behind roots outfit Hiss Golden Messenger (which he formed in 2007 with his longtime collaborator Scott Hirsch), Taylor’s not just taken on the rustic sounds of his adopted home of the South, specifically Durham, North Carolina, but done so with a fine grasp on the area’s history and folklore.
Lateness of Dancers, Hiss Golden Messenger's debut for Merge, is a more melodic and polished affair than we're used to; it is also true that founder and songwriter M.C. Taylor's songwriting and vision have grown considerably since 2013's fine Haw. Lateness of Dancers -- its title taken from a Eudora Welty story -- retains that source's earthiness as it engages everything from folk, country-rock, back-country fiddle music, and even Southern R&B, the latter by way of an electric piano whose use recalls Muscle Shoals and Stax.
Hiss Golden MessengerLateness Of DancersMerge RecordsRating: 4 out of 5 Stars Hiss Golden Messenger has totally ruled our 2014 and thusly our 2014 has ruled pretty hard. January saw the reissue of HGM’s 2010 lost masterpiece – a stark solo record that saw most of its physical copies destroyed in a warehouse fire, limiting the scope of its release – and this week brings their Merge Records debut Lateness Of Dancers. Our year has been bookended by two very different but wonderful albums by the same artist and that has us thinking about just handing all of our year-end list-space over to North Caolina songwriter and HGM leader M.C.
Although largely falling within traditional singer-songwriter conventions, the music of MC Taylor and Scott Hirsch, aka Hiss Golden Messenger, has a distinctive quality of its own. It has also been undergoing a subtle evolution from the spare, stark Bad Debt to last year’s delicately groovy Haw. Part of this is due to the unusual religious and spiritual imagery and literature that informs Taylor’s lyrics (this album’s title is drawn from a Eudora Welty story), but much of it is also due to the lightly shuffling feeling produced by his ensemble.
M.C. Taylor is working for the weekend. “When Satuday comes, I’m gonna rock my soul,” he promises on Lateness of Dancers, his fourth full-length as Hiss Golden Messenger. “I might get a little crazy, I’m gonna drink some whiskey.” As the piano pounds out an insistent bundle of chords and the guitars carouse and stumble against one another, Taylor draws out that last word, savoring the syllables as though they’re the only thing getting him through the week.
Signing with Merge was the savviest move that M.C. Taylor could ever have made in support of his ongoing folk-rock project Hiss Golden Messenger. Everything he has released under the name to date has been on micro-indie labels like Tompkins Square and Paradise of Bachelors that have yet to earn the cultural cachet that the home of Arcade Fire and Wye Oak has achieved.
Hiss Golden Messenger has occupied a strange place in the folk/country scene for some time. The group’s spare arrangements and fragile melodies recall anti-folk stalwarts like Bill Callahan, but M.C. Taylor and Scott Hirsch have always had a fondness for arrangements that allow the group’s songs to flourish. Their take on these traditions has always been rich and devoted without falling into slavish obsession with tradition.
Based on his previous releases as Hiss Golden Messenger, MC Taylor might not have been the first name you’d put on your party invite list. An introspective, lo-fi country gathering perhaps, but not the man that would come to mind when trying to think of someone to get the party started. Lateness Of Dancers might just be the record to make you reconsider that.
Album No 5 from Hiss Golden Messenger – and their first for the celebrated indie label Merge – is, like its predecessor Haw, largely a full-band affair, moving away from the acoustic country-folk of their early records, though not dispensing with it entirely. On Mahogany Dread, the combination of MC Taylor’s Dylanesque voice, the despairing lyrics, the gently rippling guitars, and the mid-pace propulsion of the rhythm section puts the music within waving distance of the War on Drugs’s cosmic MOR. Lateness of Dancers is an understated album, not one to pick up in search of instant gratification.
No one likes to be blue, but songwriters and sadness have been getting along famously ever since humans first decided to bare their inner feelings to the accompaniment of a stringed instrument. In songwriting terms, heartbreak, struggle and strife seem to lead to musical alchemy much, much more often than happier fare, which is often relegated to the lowly status of – at best - pleasant if slight holding operations to be bobbed up along to until true (read: blue) inspiration strikes again. A sunnier proposition than its often brooding, justifiably praised predecessors, Hiss Golden Messenger’s fifth studio album refuses to accept that doom and gloom alone equal goodness.