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Hiss Golden Messengers: Terms of Surrender
by George Graham
(Merge Records as broadcast on WVIA-FM 12/11/2019)
On previous reviews, I have noted the proliferation of one-person bands, observing that in many cases they were made possible by the easy accessibility of laptop recording software. This time, we have essentially a one person band who takes a more traditional approach, and has often been described as a folk act. It’s Hiss Golden Messenger, and the new release is called Terms of Surrender. Hiss Golden Messenger is mainly MC Taylor from Durham, North Carolina, though over the years, it has been a somewhat amorphous group with various other members.
California native MC Taylor formed Hiss Golden Messenger in 2007 with Scott Hirsch. Taylor’s father was in a band in California called the Settlers. Before forming the folky Hiss Golden Messenger, both MC Taylor and Hirsch were in a hard core punk band and then an indie rock group, called The Court and Spark. After the dissolution of that band, both Taylor and Hirsch moved to North Carolina and formed Hiss Golden Messenger, releasing their limited edition debut album in 2008. Since then, Hiss Golden Messenger has released 12 studio albums, 3 EPs, and five live recordings.
On the new album, Terms of Surrender MC Taylor’s main collaborator is multi-instrumentalist Phil Cook, along with a more or less conventional band on the album with bassist Brad Cook, who was also co-producer, Aaron Dessner of the band The National on guitars and piano, Josh Kaufman on additional guitars and Matt McCaughan on drums. The sound of the album tends toward a tasteful roots rock group, with some noticeable influence from the alternative rock scene.
Taylor is an appealing singer, and his songs have the kind of intelligent, poetic, sometimes ambiguous lyrics of a good folkie, while the band setting is understated. The ten songs consider relationships; in couple of instances can be autobiographical, hinting at living an itinerant life, like a musician, and being away from one’s love and home.
Opening is a track called I Need a Teacher which seems to be a tribute to Taylor’s father, who was rocker himself, though the song hints at a difficult relationship. <<>>
More laid-back in sound is Bright Direction (You’re a Dark Star Now), with lyrics that most likely have a story behind them, though there are more hints than details. <<>>
One of the musically stronger tracks is My Wing with an appealing melodic roots-rock setting. <<>>
Rather less conventional in sound is Old Enough to Wonder Why (East Side – West Side). In contrast to the distinctive percussion and soul-influenced backing vocals, Taylor plays some banjo. <<>>
One of the more intriguing songs is Cat’s Eye Blue, whose atmospheric sound provides the settings for lyrics of introspection. <<>>
Happy Birthday Baby was written for Taylor’s young daughter, and makes reference to being away from her. <<>>
Whip is another distinctive track with a bluesy harmonica whose lyrics run toward the metaphysical. <<>>
The album ends with its title song Terms of Surrender a piano ballad, a reflective piece considering the complications of a relationship. <<>>
Terms of Surrender the new release by Hiss Golden Messenger, the more than decade-long musical project of North Carolinian MC Taylor is a very respectable singer-songwriter record that embodies an alternative-influenced roots rock sound. Taylor is a first-rate writer and his musical persona and vocal style are quite appealing. The album will keep fans of poetic folkies happy with the lyrics, and instrumentation is synthesizer free and leans on acoustic guitar as an undercurrent.
Our grade for audio quality is a B, with points deducted for the effects including intentional overdrive distortion on the vocals. Some tracks are better than others, and much of the instrumentation is acceptably recorded, but it’s a long way from being an audiophile album. By the way, most of the recording took place in Upstate New York at the studio of Aaron Dessner of the band the National, who as mentioned, is also one of the players on Terms of Surrender. Other recording sites include Los Angeles, Nashville, and Durham, North Carolina, and the album was mixed in Portland, Oregon.
MC Taylor and Hiss Golden Messenger have come up with a worthwhile new release whose audience can span fans of more traditional singer-songwriters to aficiandos of indie rock.
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