Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Hiss Golden Messenger: Poor Moon, Rich Harvest

MC Taylor and his son; Paradise of Bachelors

Earlier this month, Hiss Golden Messenger released their fourth record: Poor Moon. It's a meditative and beguiling collection of songs that claims a space within some noticeable traditions, yet stands outside of a full-membership within a rock, country, or folk genre. 

This may speak to the boundary crossing of MC Taylor, an accomplished musician whose path led him out of San Francisco and into the folklore program at the University of North Carolina. Mr. Taylor, who collaborates in HGM with former Court & Spark bandmate Scott Hirsch, has settled in the rural Piedmont town of Pittsboro, North Carolina. Mr. Taylor wrote these songs at the kitchen table of his farmhouse, during spare hours while his son slept. These songs (some of which appear in stripped-down, field-recording form on his previous LP Bad Debt) speak to this context, but also exceed their creation myth in startling ways.

From the songs to their sequence, and even to the material object itself, Poor Moon is a stunningly complete work. The LP (or download) was brought into the world by the Paradise of Bachelors label, the same folks whose first release was one of last year's stand-out records, Said I Had A Vision: The Songs and Labels of David Lee. While the transition from a collection of North Carolina soul to Hiss Golden Messenger would be an unlikely bridge for some record labels, it makes perfect sense here. The Bachelors, Brendan Greaves and Jason Perlmutter, come from a folklore and record-collecting background, and their attention to place and culture expands how we think about southern music and reveals surprising commonalities between local soul 45s and the rooted meditations of Mr. Taylor.

The limited-edition, hand-numbered LP release, which also features illustrations by UK-based visual artist Alex Jako, offers a few things to hold on to while listening. All of this culminates in a physical presence that sets a visual analog for the songs themselves - so clear when reviewing the album art alongside the opening track, "Blue Country Mystic."

David Bowie has called the music of Hiss Golden Messenger "mystical country," "an eerie yellowing photograph," some well-deserved praise that will no doubt be mentioned in many reviews. While such a quote seems to get at the atmosphere of the first side of Poor Moon, even the lines from this opening track suggest this is a "mystical country" with a vertical depth. In just a few lines we understand this mystic may also be a "little wandering one," possessed of a vision leading "from the city into the mountains," and that, by song's end, the singer himself becomes the mystic. Between the "wise one" whose image opens the opening song of Poor Moon, and the "little one" who follows, we discover a powerful metaphor for this collection of songs - a kind of spiritual search that reaches backwards while also reaching forwards to a new generation just beginning to learn their language and understand their place. The singer stands where so many of us stand: in between tradition and change, the past and future, looking for a foothold.

Such complex ideas are punctuated by the expert collaborations of over a dozen musicians. From lap steel to gongs, pump organ to saxophone, their contributions offer a coherent counterpoint to the lyrics. We hear many of these collaborators on "Drummer Down," [the third track locatable in the player above] and their instrumentation alongside Mr. Taylor's voice begs repeat listenings. After a few, though, the lyrics emerge - and the floor falls out from that taut, joyful rhythm:

Well it's alright now, the pain is gone.
It's alright now, little one. 
Riven from my body, as a ghost I dwell,
But my home, O I know I loved well
They drew a hex around my body, a hex around my soul,
called me from a place where I did dwell,
driven by my mind, down roads I didn't know
they were roads that I would never see again.

These cycles of birth and death, child to ghost, recur across Poor Moon - as do certain specific images and end-rhymes - and offer another testament to how complete, and how cyclical, a statement is captured on this LP.

Barring Mr. Bowie's words, and the comparisons to The Greatful Dead (and Canned Heat's "Poor Moon"), perhaps one of the most moving ghosts within this project is that of William Butler Yeats, an amateur folklorist, lifelong student of the occult, and, of course, a Nobel poet laureate. While many rock records get mileage by quoting a few lines from "The Second Coming," Poor Moon lives out a Yeatsian poetics without ever having to talk about slouching to Bethlehem. Beyond a line that may or may not reference Yeats's extraordinary late poem "What Then?" we're left with an overwhelming notion that the poet's ideas on lunar phases and their relationships to time and personality might be lurking beneath these songs. One of the rewards of Poor Moon is how it will send you to other sources, across mediums.

In the context of The Art of the Rural, and our interest in the rural-urban exchange, Hiss Golden Messenger's reading of Yeats offers a context and look forward to how else rural folk tradition could be honored and made new within contemporary music. In correspondence with Mr. Taylor, he confirmed that Yeats was an influence on these songs (along with Wendell Berry and the Bible); the Irish poet's own use of folklore and Biblical reference was a mixture of Victorian antiquarianism and a kind of cultural nationalism where the visions of Irish peasants signified how rural space was un-English, inscrutable, and the anchor of Irishness. In short, it was a pastoral, not that far from the pastorals that still flourish in the American arts today.

While some musicians like Sam Amidon take a more curatorial approach in relation to this complicated inheritance, Hiss Golden Messenger's music finds a deeper source, what Yeats himself found in the vernacular: "a powerful and passionate syntax." This selection from an interview with Emma Brown in Interview magazine, where Mr. Taylor discusses his field recording work in North Carolina, seems to suggest the common philosophical ground of his field work and his music:
Emma Brown: Have you always been interested in folklore?
MC Taylor: I guess I was, if you want to consider just being a really obsessive music fan and listener and collector and reader a folklorist, which it sort of is.  But when I went to graduate school, my definition of folklore both narrowed and deepened. We didn't talk about things like myths, not a single time, that's not what it's about. It's more about expressive and/or vernacular culture and how it's deployed in the public realm. To get a little academic about it! [laughs] I'm not looking for people that are old and possibly the only ones playing a certain type of music, I'm not looking for the last remnants of an old ancient story. If people are interested in a certain kind of cultural expression, whether it be low-riding, or hip-hop, or bluegrass music, that's what I'm interested in documenting. Obviously it's important to that group of people, so the question is how to they interact with that art form, what do they do with it, that sort of thing.
There's a gorgeous confluence of art forms in Poor Moon - poetry, music, and folklore - but not what folks might expect. There are indeed field recordings here, but no instruments, no human voices are heard. In interludes between the songs on the second side we hear cicadas, birds, and a rainstorm, as the rhythm of one subtly shifts into the rhythm of another. As these songs conclude with questions of religion and redemption, these field recordings not only place the singer back in the North Carolina Piedmont but they suggest how the largest, most cosmic cycles are rooted in our local hills. That knowledge is part gift, part revelation, part responsibility. As the LP or CD spins in its cycle, alongside that lush album art, we're reminded of the process inherent in what we create, what we cultivate. And we keep listening.