HEART LIKE A LEVEE by Hiss Golden Messenger
Favorite Tracks: “Heart Like a Levee,” “Like a Mirror Loves a Hammer,” “Tell Her I’m Just Dancing”
Good music is transportive, and there’s no record like HEART LIKE A LEVEE to transport you to Appalachian mornings of country air and wooden porch swings. M.C. Taylor’s journey on the road from his home deep in North Carolina is well documented in HEART LIKE A LEVEE. Embellished with Americana, alternative country, folk rock, blues, and gospel, this album is a wonderful marriage of creativity, musical skill, and rhythm that proves a country influence is nothing to shy away from. This beautifully curated record swings from genre to genre, making even the most twang-repellent listener feel at home with its funky beats and woodsy-folk acoustic guitar.
If Keith Urban and Ben Howard had a love child, it would be Hiss Golden Messenger. The typical lyrics of back porch mysticism of a country artist are offset by a powerful snare drum and rock influenced rhythm section, making for a wonderful surprise. This was no doubt influenced by the band’s tour with Ben Howard, a genius of folk rock, who effortlessly blends rock-and-roll into rustic cello and acoustic guitar. At first listen, one might expect HEART LIKE A LEVEE to be a soft country record, but it takes the listener by surprise with its flowing funk numbers. The guitar skill and unexpected sounds that are different from most country records makes one forgive (or further enjoy) the vocal twang that so often steers listeners away. The gospel influence is terrific in this record. In the title song, lyrics of “Go easy on me / I ain’t doing too well” quickly remind the listeners that this isn’t just any cheerful folksy record, but filled with powerful tunes fit for a sermon. Gospel backing vocals create a heartfelt orchestration that transports one straight to a southern pew, complete with an image of M.C. Taylor on his knees.
Similar to Bon Iver, Hiss Golden Messenger is influenced by a mirage of different sounds, yet is extremely distinctive in their own music. The jangly guitar is straight country, yet the gospel chorus adds another element entirely. However, it is the emotions in Taylor’s voice that lay at the essence of their sound, accentuated by the percussion’s rock edge. “Like a Mirror Loves a Hammer” has the recognizable influence of U2’s “Bullet the Blue Sky.” A deep, bluesy guitar and driving bass create a funk-like rebound to tight harmonies. It takes an enormous amount of talent to pull off mixing funk with country. Strings make an appearance in “Cracked Windshield,” and one remembers the pure pleasure of listening to acoustic guitar by the time the next track comes around. The curating and placement of tracks is what makes this record so spectacular. There is not a moment to be bored; an array of instruments, mastery of strings, piano, acoustic and electric guitar, and percussion create a different world for each song to exist in. Once “Ace of Cups Hung Low Band” smacks you with its grooves, complex harmonies, and overlapping vocals like a church choir, you’re left completely satiated.
Thumps, strums, and rasps all color the record with visions of red clay, Appalachian earth, and complex Christian iconography that implants listeners right into the Deep South. Biblical lyrics make this record even more pew-shakingly powerful. References to Judas and white man blues make even simple Americana tropes typical in country music carry the weight of a late night prayer. It’s no wonder that Taylor’s struggle from quitting his day job and leaving his family for tour is the leading force behind these lyrics: “Do you hate me honey / as much as I hate myself?” Despite the gravity of his lyrics (downtrodden words are often a staple of indie folk), Taylor is lifted to a joyous plane through the rock vibes of the bass, never letting the lyrics fall into a dismal area. This becomes an uplifting album of wisdom. The hope and locomotive momentum of rumbling, soul rhapsody in “Say It Like You Mean It,” and lone instrumental “Smokey’s Song,” full of melancholy wisps, instill the Southern muse that floods Taylor’s music. Each song conjures the antebellum image, whether subtle or explicit.
The Americana music of HEART LIKE A LEVEE opens a hidden world of swampy, southern music. The rambling attitude of Taylor’s journey on the road and prayer-like lyrics are captured in this wonderfully organized record. Country rock roots are strong and proud, but the product is completely independent: Each song is vivid and memorable, a mastery of genres, musical skill, and creative talent.