The Durham singer-songwriter finds the perfect home at what just might be the perfect North Carolina record label. (Pictured above: Scott Hirsch and MC Taylor of HGM.)
BY JORDAN LAWRENCE
A few years back, when Pitchfork.com’s Tom Ewing reviewed Tell Tale Signs, the eighth entry in Bob Dylan’s renowned Bootleg Series, he noted the intimidating nature of writing critically about an artist so gifted with his words: “There’s often an understandable wariness when it comes to criticizing Bob Dylan,” he wrote, “for one thing, he’s better at this words stuff than we are.”
In that regard, writing about Durham, N.C.’s Hiss Golden Messenger might be even more daunting. M.C. Taylor, the profound and precise songwriter at the center of this sonically diverse but traditionally grounded folk-rock outfit, ably dissects the freeing sense of certainty and the conversely constricting dogma that are packaged within all religions — in his case, Christianity — cutting to the quick in a realm that confounds most of his peers; see Dylan’s born-again stretch from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s for examples of how this pursuit can bring the loftiest songwriters crashing back to Earth.
It would be one thing if analyzing Hiss Golden Messenger simply meant rising to Taylor’s level, a mighty task in its own right. But Haw, the band’s wonderful new LP, is also its second for Chapel Hill’s Paradise of Bachelors. The label boasts a compelling approach, releasing new albums from musicians who mine oft-neglected corners of the South’s rich musical history alongside archival offerings that highlight artists who made unheralded contributions to that heritage. The label also has a secret weapon when it comes to relaying these interconnected stories: Brendan Greaves, one of the label’s co-founders, is an eminently skilled folklorist and essayist, and his press releases set a high bar for any features or reviews that they inspire.
“Haw, herein, is an album of eleven songs about family, faith, and an ill-prophesied future, an artifact almost as archaic, lovely and seldom heard today as directional commands for beasts of burden,” He writes in his description of the new release. “M.C. Taylor, who wrote these songs, once lived hard by the [N.C. river] Haw with his wife Abigail and their son Elijah—Well I come from the bottom of the river Haw, he sings—but he doesn’t live there anymore. Having followed the slipstream to the relative bustle of nearby Durham, North Carolina, he has composed a new clutch of tunes that conjure the half-remembered dreams of peace promised by our pasts.”
Few and far between are publicists who wield their words with such dexterity. Equally rare are label owners who possess such penetrating insight into the works of their artists. It’s one of many traits that makes PoB an ideal home for the musicians it attracts.
“They’re the most articulate people that I know in terms of how they present their stuff,” Taylor says. “They’re so careful with just articulating what the music is about, and they just hit it on the nose every time. I mean, Brendan [Greaves, label cofounder] is just the best fucking writer I’ve ever met in my life. He’s insane. He’s sort of a savant. That is a powerful arrow to have in the quiver. It’s one that 99 percent of people who run not only record labels, but anything that’s any entity that’s sort of curating or aesthetically presenting material, whether it be books or whatever — you don’t get a Brendan Greaves very often.”
(Hiss Golden Messenger – music from Haw)
The bard of Durham…
Nor will Greaves come across many musicians so perfectly suited for his label. With Haw and its predecessor, 2011’s Poor Moon (PoB’s first non-archival release), Taylor and his musical partner Scott Hirsch — along with frequent drumming ally Terry Lonergan — create a mercurial folk-rock atmosphere, populating it with sounds that visit by way of other genres and marking it with the sense of simultaneous doubt and triumph that’s conjured by Taylor’s spiritually charged lyrics.
“Red Rose Nantahala” drives through with a purposeful country stomp as Taylor wraps his rough but soothing croon around a fervent plea to worship the way he wants without being threatened or told that he’s wrong. ”Go say whatever prayer you want,” he sings, “To whatever likeness you endorse/ To Jehovah or Yahweh/ Or Red Rose Nantahala.” Psychedelic distortion builds throughout, mirroring Taylor’s passion, climaxing in a blazing guest guitar solo from Nashville’s William Tyler that obliterates the song’s restrained atmosphere, replacing it with wild and fiery cosmic country.
Haw is defined by such subtle but scintillating stylistic fusion. “Busted Note” begins as a sterling country ballad but melts into a reggae-inspired trance during the chorus. “Sufferer (Love My Conqueror)” moves with a haunted blues gait further complicated by ethereal guitar and strings that trade the grandeur of Nashville’s old-school orchestrations for modern classical menace. In its enthralling religious confusion and its liberated approach to the South’s musical roots, Hiss Golden Messenger’s songs are one of the most intriguing modern expressions of the region’s diverse musical legacy — quite the accomplishment for a man who came to Durham by way of San Francisco — and a fitting cornerstone for PoB’s curatorial pursuit.
“I’m really drawn to Southern music at large just because I love it,” Taylor says. “And I’ve been working towards my own interpretation of it, not slavishly copying my favorite musicians, but rather understanding what it is about living in the South that might inform what some of my favorite musicians do. Then, in turn, trying to figure out if there’s a way that I can draw from my environment that I’ve created around here to communicate something that feels genuine and honest to me but that also tips a hat to all this beautiful music that’s from this area that I love so much.”
A remarkable Tarheel label…
As a label, PoB has similar goals. Founded by Greaves and Jason Perlmutter in 2010, the label was sparked by the pair’s independent inquiries into the music of David Lee, a soul singer, songwriter, producer and label owner who had long toiled in the obscurity of North Carolina’s Cleveland County. Lee actually mistook Greaves for Perlmutter the first time they spoke on the phone — “We were the two young white guys who were talking to him from this area,” Greaves laughs. The two released a collection of his works, Said I Had a Vision: Songs & Labels of David Lee, 1960–1988, and found they were inspired to keep going.
They released Poor Moon the next year and followed it with a reissue of the self-titled 1969 effort by short-lived interracial psych-funk outfit Plant and See. Shortly thereafter, Perlmutter left the label to pursue his own business collecting and selling vintage vinyl. Greaves pressed on and recruited his friend Christopher Smith as his new business partner. Flush with the new connections that Smith brought to the fold — based in Philadelphia, he once played in the psych-folk band Espers — PoB expanded from simply releasing records forged in North Carolina to curating national material that furthered its exploration of Southern music.
“The regionality of what we do is an overarching rubric, but I don’t think it by any means needs to limit what we do,” Greaves explains. “Ultimately, what we’re dealing with are stories and finding under-recognized stories with a musical component. We’re selling stories as much as records, especially today when physical media, physical records don’t have the same sway in the marketplace. I think to sell a vinyl record today, you better have a story behind it, especially when you’re dealing with historical or reissued material. I certainly don’t have the intention of being willfully obscure when it comes to our choices. But we gravitate towards the less recognized and folks with maybe some kind of untold story or underdog status in the world of music.”
That wider net has allowed PoB to expand its output — after releasing four titles prior to 2013, the label will drop seven records before the end of the year — without forsaking the interconnectedness that makes its releases so appealing.
Take The Red Rippers’ Over There . . . and Over Here, which PoB reissued in January. Recorded by Vietnam veteran Edwin Dale Bankston while he was stationed in Pensacola, Fla., the album pairs chooglin that out-toughs anything produced by CCR with bleak but up-tempo ragers that encapsulate the fear and rage felt by many soldiers during the war. In sound, it’s not far removed from Time Off, the upcoming release from Brooklyn guitarist Steve Gunn, which will see release through PoB in June. The album relishes in extended grooves cut through by Gunn’s guitar, which switches from intricate loops to cutting solos with uncommon dexterity, and psychedelic flourishes, though the mood is far less aggressive than that of the Rippers. These two albums, culled from different eras, deploy similar styles with strikingly different motives, a testament to the way PoB manages to achieve diversity without losing its thematic focus.
“I’m trying to make a point about the world of Southern music,” Greaves says. “There is a way to look at music that pays less attention to the micro-genres and the obsession with scenes and categorization and binaries that we see even more than ever because of the way music is treated on the Internet. Everything has a name attached to it or several names, tags, hashtags. Everything is categorized in these endless ways. And that’s interesting, but it’s also interesting to throw disparate things together and go, ‘Well, what do these superficially or nominally different things have in common?’”