If I was going to give any advice to someone who hasn’t seen Hiss Golden Messenger live, it would be: Go. If I was going to give any advice to someone who has seen Hiss Golden Messenger live, it would be: Go again. Although for the latter, I can’t imagine much encouragement would be needed.
The key word of their live performances, according to bandleader M.C Taylor, was (or rather is): “groove”. 2014’s groove-heavy ‘Lateness of Dancers’ mixed with some cuts from 2015’s ‘Southern Grammar’, knitted with a few beefed-up versions from the kitchen-acoustic ‘Bad Debt’ made sure that they delivered on that promise.
So, with the release of ‘Heart Like A Levee’, is the groove still there?
The answer is yes. But it’s a much smoother than it’s been before. The electric riffs of Lateness of Dancers have been reigned in in place of a more considered delivery, tinged with gospel and soul notes, reminiscent of an America gone-by. The album’s title track is complimented by beautiful backing vocals, as Taylor sings about his own struggles: “Sing me a river/ Oh, go easy on me I’m not doing too well/ Do you hate me honey/ As much as I hate myself”.
‘Like a Mirror Loves a Hammer’ is slow and methodical, almost funk-like in its beat, gentle horns breathe in and out over the slow bassy riff; a sound as far removed from the country-rock cuts of Lateness of Dancers as they’ve been. The American roots of the band, however, remain. And throughout the slight shifting of styles Taylor’s voice remains a solid companion to the music; never taking over, never getting lost.
The story of the band’s first major release – Bad Debt – is an interesting one. Recorded on a cassette player at Taylor’s home, the main stock of the CD was subsequently destroyed in a warehouse fire during the London Riots. The anguish almost reflected in Taylor’s voice. And now comes Heart Like a Levee; in a statement regarding the album’s creation, Taylor said he had been feeling, “more acutely than I had ever felt before – wrenched apart by my responsibilities to my family and to my music”. Life on the road taking its toll.
For the first time since Bad Debt, Taylor actually sounds vulnerable again. On ‘Cracked Windshield’, as he sings: “I was a dreamer, babe / When I sat out on the road“, it sounds like a mirror of the opening line from ‘No Lord is Free;’ Bad Debt’s second track.
That’s not to say that the album sounds all doom and gloom. Far from it. The lead single from the album – ‘Tell Her I’m Just Dancing’ – is a soul stomp with swirling organs and chopping guitars giving us that groove. While the opener ‘Biloxi’ is a summery southern-American jam – the slide of Phil Cook’s guitar shining immediately.
Overall, it sounds like a real-life album. Taylor and the band have lived the road life, the life which has led to the creation of these songs, and you can hear that in this album. An album of experiences expertly told by a master of the craft.