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Entries in Hiss Golden Messenger (4)


Hiss Golden Messenger in Hove

At Hove's Palmeira pub last night Mike Taylor, the man behind the Hiss Golden Messenger monicker, memorably compared his songwriting to building lightning conductors. Putting the songs out there and seeing if a flash of electricity will coruscate through them... He has a remarkable hit-rate and his fine set fairly crackled with spine-tingling moments. A definite smell of ozone, I'd say.

It was impressive that Taylor, and fellow traveller guitar maestro William Tyler, were even awake and coherent, having flown in from the US over the previous night, the airline mislaying their merchandise crate along the way. They seemed genuinely pleased to be doing what they were doing and both were on strong form. The only obvious sign of a fuddled brain came from Mike forgetting a line from his encore song 'Jesus Shot Me In The Head.' He checked with the audience, started again and nailed it with a glorious performance.

The latest HGM album Haw benefits from varied arrangements and a range of other musical contributions, but there is a particular intensity in hearing the songs played solo: concentrating more on the words, through his rich, slightly slurry, vocal delivery, against the backdrop of the sinuous pulse of his distinctive guitar style.

And just what is going on in those words? I'm happy to report that I can't exactly tell you. There is that intriguing sense of something lurking, alluded to and not fully addressed, sometimes light, sometimes dark. There is a lot of biblical imagery, which doesn't seem to be used for straightforwardly biblical purposes: introducing one song, Taylor described trying and failing to persuade a gospel singer friend to record a backing vocal for it - 'she belongs to the church, I belong to something else'. But there is nothing casual or manipulative about this; he clearly understands the weight and power of the pictures he is painting, in anticipation of a time 'when the truth will be revealed as something we can't see'.

Incidentally, I haven't seen an explanation anywhere of the Hiss Golden Messenger name: my take, for what it's worth, would be another twist of biblical image - 'His golden messenger' evoking an angel or a prophet, the extra sibilant showing that the serpent is closely involved in this too... Pretty much the human condition, really. 

Whatever. There is a depth and a heft to what HGM does which sets those sort of thought patterns going. Dive into Haw, or catch him on this tour, and see what Taylor's songs will do for you.

And a PS for Mike: do a song or two with William - that would be great.


The week after Record Store Day

Getting people into record shops has to be a good idea and there's still fun and great music to be had from RSD, if you can dodge the worst of the queues and ignore the profiteering (yes, you, Grateful Dead and Daniel Lanois - amongst other over-pricers).

How do this year's purchases stack up in the cold light of a week's listening?

First, an unequivocal recommendation for Golden Gunn's self-titled album. A collaborative effort centred on Hiss Golden Messenger mainman MC Taylor and guitarist/singer/songwriter Steve Gunn, of whom I confess I had not previously heard. I bought it solely on the basis of my continuing HGM obsession and in anticipation of seeing them live on Friday...

It's a relaxed, mellow and largely instrumental collection - but with rather more focus and edge than 'jam session' might suggest. Mixing southern soul with psychedelia and much else besides, it's always engaging and sometimes frankly gorgeous. Imagine an afterhours session at Muscle Shoals with some stimulants circulating.

Anyway, a subsequent bit of research quickly unearthed a splendid Steve Gunn solo album, Boerum Palace, which I'm now listening to. And the information that he is currently part of Kurt Vile's band. Now, it's funny how one thing leads to another...

I'd always assumed I wouldn't like Kurt Vile - simple prejudice based on a crap stage name - I envisioned him as a tediously pretentious and angular postpunk poseur, so never sought out his music, even when my daughter interviewed him. So can I just say mea culpa - mea maxima culpa? His latest album, Wakin' On A Pretty Daze, is lovely: strong songs, well-struck guitars, Lou Reed-ish phrasing - what's not to like?

And that little serendipitous musical journey seems to me to be what Record Store Day should be all about.

In other parts of the forest, the Lisa Hannigan/Leluc 7" from the Way To Blue: Songs Of Nick Drake live album is a beautiful reminder of a lovely concert. But why is there no sign of the whole record coming out on vinyl? Or, indeed, Lisa's fine Passenger solo album?

The Bob Dylan 7" has, without knocking me out, done its intended job and whetted my appetite for a Bootleg Series release focusing on Self Portrait. The demo of 'Wigwam' is very clearly recorded and sounds great in its stripped-down form, without adding anything particularly revelatory to the established legend; the B-side 'Thirsty Boots' is a not-particularly-amazing Eric Anderson song - it's good to hear the Bob of 40-odd years ago singing something new, but the performance isn't spectacular.

And finally, the Thurston Moore/Loren Connors collaboration The Only Way To Go Is Straight Through was a bit of a disappointment. I love the title and like a bit of noise now and then, but this improvised set hasn't really grabbed me so far - certainly not to the same extent as Moore's last couple of song-based solo albums. But I'll keep trying.

An overall B, then, for RSD 2013, I'd say. I'll be back next year.


2012: the records of the year

It was a year in which a lot of old campaigners gave a good account of themselves. In addition to those listed below, the likes of Van Morrison, John Cale, Dexys, Dr John, Kris Kristofferson and (at least in parts) Bob Dylan all made decent records with fresh ideas and little sign of the autopilot taking charge. So, a bit of a challenge for younger folk to cut through and grab their share of turntable time – but, as we'll see, some of them most definitely did...

My list for 2012 looks like this:

10. Leonard Cohen, Old Ideas. I wrote about this at length here when it first came out. I can't claim that I've played it a lot in recent months, but I remain deeply impressed. A master at work, still with engaging things to say.

9. Michael ChapmanPachyderm. A second volume of improvised instrumental music from this extraordinary guitarist. Minimal, restrained, repetitive, essentially one chord for 24 minutes (my wife just came in and asked 'is it stuck?'). But also - I would say - hypnotic and rather wonderful, like ripples on the surface of a limpid pool. Side two is a remix with some electronics added, and may be even better.

8.Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Psychedelic Pill. This was never going to win any converts, but if you're already a fan of the special noise that Neil and the Horse make together, this album is like sinking into a warm bath: inimitable guitar playing on and on against an irresistible rhythm section. The lyrics range between the casually weird ('gonna get me a hip hop haircut' etc in 'Driftin' Back'), to the spare and beautifully observed (his portrait of an aging couple in 'Ramada Inn'), to the frankly bathetic ('For The Love Of Man'). But Neil is not a reflector or an editor and we've learnt over the years to go with the flow and relish the ragged as well as the glorious. (A busy year for him and the Horse with Americana also released: this straight-faced collection of cranked-up folk chestnuts has its longeurs, but a lot of it is excellent – 'Oh Susannah' in particular.)

7. Cheek Mountain Thief, Cheek Mountain Thief. An intriguing and inventive album that repays repeated listening. Mike Lindsay, the frontman from Tunng, has relocated to Iceland and recorded there with a range of local musicians. Some densely layered arrangements, featuring credits for everything from marimbas to 'Space Echo Guitar and Vintage Noise', all wedded to the sense of fun and feel for a twisted hookline that Tunng aficionados will recognise and relish.

6. Hiss Golden Messenger, Poor Moon. HGM were one of the year's best discoveries for me, via the compilation which follows in this list. I have no idea where the band name comes from but the shifting mix of players Michael Taylor and Scott Hirsch put together do some lovely things. Lush and lovely Americana, nicely played and sung, with some edgy turns ('Jesus Shot Me In The Head' anyone?). They also put out a fine out-takes set recently, Lord I Love The Rain, ahead of their next 'proper' album due next spring.

5. Various Artists, Oh Michael, Look What You've Done: Friends Play Michael Chapman. The best tribute albums avoid an over-reverential approach to the material, fit together as an integrated listening experience and introduce you to some people you haven't heard before. Oh Michael... fits that bill perfectly, with an extraordinary mix of performers bringing their own distinctive styles to Chapman's strong but underexposed songs. Hiss Golden Messenger's 'Fennario' is one stand-out and this set also sent me out to learn more of Meg Baird and Black Twig Pickers, seeing both play great shows in Brighton this year. Other contributors include Thurston Moore and Lucinda Williams, both in fine voice here, as are the excellent Two Wings...

4. Two Wings, Love's Spring. ...who also put out a brilliant record of their own this year. I've already put them in my 'gigs of the year' list and the record has the added benefits of fuller arrangements, including brass, and a beautiful Hanna Tuulikki sleeve. It is a strikingly confident and assured debut, with strong ensemble playing and soaring harmonies and vocal swoops which repeatedly raise hairs on your neck.

3. Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball. Less prominent in others' end-of-year lists than I would have expected, given Bruce's towering presence as the greatest big-stage performer, and one of the few rock performers with something coherent and interesting to say about the state of the world. I would say this bears comparison with anything he's released in the last 30 years, striking in its musical range and obvious passion. Not perfect, of course, as I noted here, but not many could hold their own against this.

2. Patti Smith, Banga. But Patti certainly can. A comparable self-belief and open-hearted commitment to her work; a comparable joy in communion with her audience - it would surprise some who can't see past her self-conscious reverence for her intellectual forebears to share the passion and pleasure she brings to a sing-a-long 'People Have The Power' in concert. Patti is another writer who doesn't always take time to amend and refine her lyrics and there are some clumsy lines here (particularly on 'April Fool' and 'This Is The Girl'). But she is in better voice than ever, the musicianship and arrangements are superb, and the best songs ('Amerigo', 'Banga', 'Constantine's Dream') are spine-tingling.

 1. Wussy, Buckeye. Regular readers will no doubt think I have raved enough about Wussy already, but, having discovered them seven years into their career, there has been a lot to catch up with and be impressed by. Buckeye, their first release in the UK, is the ideal place to start, bringing together some of the strongest songs in their oeuvre, from 2005's  Funeral Dress to 2012's Strawberry. In practice, I haven't been playing Buckeye itself all that much, having gone back and got all its predecessors... but a release that features the two very best songs I heard for the first time this year – 'Airborne' and 'Motorcycle' – has to be a strong contender for the top slot. And when the latest songs, like 'Grand Champion Steer' and 'Asteroids', are so good it's clear that 'Best of 2012' is an entirely reasonable conclusion. Brain, power, passion; thrashed guitars and yearning harmonies; a fascinating creative dynamic between the two singer-songwriters – what more could the discerning rock fan of a certain age look for?

So, those are my favourites. A final mention for Can's The Lost Tapes as clear winner of the archive release of the year: a beautifully packaged 3 CD set packed full of excavated treasures. I felt much like when first listening to Dylan's Bootleg Series Vols 1-3: if this was the only release of theirs to survive, you'd still be entirely clear that you were in the presence of real talent and significance...

I've said before that I haven't bought enough singles this year to have a proper best list. Dylan's 'Duquesne Whistle' would probably be at #3, with Wussy's fine take on 'Breakfast In Bed' at #2. But the 7" which has given me the most pleasure this year is Art Is Hard Record's Family Portrait split EP, featuring Gum's irresistible 'Cherryade'.


Two recommendations

I may be weird to be enjoying both of these two new(ish) releases simultaneously, but there you go...

First up, Hiss Golden Messenger's Poor Moon, bought on the back of their track on the Oh Michael... compilation which featured in my last post and well worth the price of admission. There's a sense in which it might be a newly excavated 70s singer-songwriter obscurity, but the admixture of folkier elements like fiddles and a pleasantly leftfield lyrical approach brings it back up to date. If you're beginning to feel a pull, try 'Jesus Shot Me In The Head' for size...

On to what must already be a strong contender for archival release of the year, The Lost Tapes 1968-1975 from inveterate German experimentalists Can. This is a beautifully packaged 3-CD set of studio and live material from the band's classic period, with both Malcolm Mooney and Damo Suzuki's stints at the vocal mic well represented. It comes in a 10" replica tape box with a nicely annotated booklet from keyboards-man Irmin Schmidt. Of course there are the usual 'what on earth do they think they're doing?' moments that Can fans have to accept as part of the deal, but the better stuff shows that the great albums were just the tip of an iceberg. If you don't know Can, don't start here: try Ege Bamyasi and Monster Movie then Tago Mago. If you stick that course - or if you already know your way around it - then get stuck in to The Lost Tapes... Hours of entertainment and aural stretching await.