The 1 and the 3.
That, in a nutshell, is the secret to Hiss Golden Messenger’s sound. This band swings, and it’s not just because they’re great players (they are, but I’ll get to that later). It’s because they make a subtle tweak to their rhythm section that your conscious brain may not notice, but your toes certainly will. By placing the accent on the 1 and the 3 rather than on the conventional 2 and 4, they open up a lot of musical possibilities. Next time you’re listening to them, just listen for the 1 and the 3. There will always be an instrumental cue: a shaker or tambourine here, a strumming pattern there. It’s certainly there on lead single “Biloxi.” Just listen for the wood block and the accented hi-hat.
There’s no question that it has been a remarkably good year for Americana, and this album, by North Carolina’s Hiss Golden Messenger, is one big reason why. In the lead-up to Heart Like A Levee‘s October release, I had a hunch that this album would be stellar — it just seemed poised to be one of those precious few new releases that actually live up to expectations. My reasoning was simply this: M.C. Taylor, the brains behind HGM, has just been on too much of a roll to put out a bad album. Being a massive fan, I ended up springing for the deluxe edition, which included Vestapol, an entire second album of stripped-down hotel room recordings that recalls the kitchen table 4-track recordings on Bad Debt (2010).
I ended up burning the two albums onto one CD (they just barely fit). That CD then resided in my car’s CD player for something like 10 straight weeks. When it ended, I’d just let it start over again, and again. That’s not something I usually do, even with new albums, and I relay this anecdote because it gets at something that good albums often have: listenability. It’s that intangible and difficult-to-achieve quality that makes an album appealing in a wide variety of emotional contexts, resulting in you always feeling like you can reach for it and it won’t let you down or seem out of place. Heart Like A Levee has listenability in spades.
In reading a recent interview that Taylor gave, I may have inadvertently stumbled upon the reason why HGM’s music is highly listenable without sacrificing depth. Taylor says,
I’ve talked before about not being interested in music that’s in A minor. I mean that theoretically, of course, but also figuratively. A minor is your straight up minor chord: if you want to write a sad song, start with that chord. I’m not interested in making that kind of music. Part of my mission with Hiss has been to make emotionally complex music, where you play it for someone and they can’t quite tell whether it’s happy or sad. That’s the core of my music: using it as a mirror for what my life feels like, because my life is both happy and sad, usually at the same time. It’s funny how, in the course of doing interviews for this one record, someone will ask me what it’s like to make the happiest record of my career, then the very next person will ask me what it’s like to make the darkest record of my career. It’s both of those things…
But enough theory, onto the actual music on this disc. For Heart Like A Levee, Taylor put together an incredibly good backing band that features multi-instrumentalist (and Best Music of 2015 inductee) Phil Cook, his brother Brad Cook on bass, as well as drummer Matt McCaughan, guitarist Rob Moose, and saxophonist Michael Lewis, all of Bon Iver fame. There are some really phenomenal performances captured on this album, with highlights peppered throughout each and every song. Not a note feels out of place, yet there are also some innovations and surprises.
It’s hard to pick a favourite track, but it might just be the title track, which is a gradually swelling track shot through with longing, questions, and even remorse, as Taylor prepares to head out on another tour, leaving his young family behind. The song really captures the feeling of experiencing two emotions at once.
In another interview, the typically reserved Taylor was quoted as saying,
On a good night, we can set up our gear and smoke pretty much anybody. Maybe that’s a little macho, but I like to feel confident about what I do. It’s taken me a long time to get there. It has for all of us.
After hearing the full band performances captured on this record, I think he’s entitled to feel confident in his band. This is Hiss Golden Messenger’s third straight gem of a release, and, at this point, my only hope is that they will swing by the Winnipeg Folk Festival again one of these years.