Hiss Golden Messenger has occupied a strange place in the folk/country scene for some time. The group’s spare arrangements and fragile melodies recall anti-folk stalwarts like Bill Callahan, but M.C. Taylor and Scott Hirsch have always had a fondness for arrangements that allow the group’s songs to flourish. Their take on these traditions has always been rich and devoted without falling into slavish obsession with tradition. Taylor and Hirsch are still fully aware that they’re musicians in the 21st century, as evidenced by the tinges of rock and R&B that bleed into the group’s songs. It’s a process that has worked out well for them so far, enough so that more than a few listeners were expecting Lateness Of Dancers to be a coming out party for the group. In a sense, that’s exactly what the album is, but it falls just short of being the masterpiece that the duo has been promising for quite some time.
The album is Hiss Golden Messenger’s first for new label Merge, and the transition appears to be something that Taylor took into account when writing these songs. At points, Lateness of Dancers feels like an introduction of sorts to the group, and Taylor’s lighter, poppier songs are befitting of his intentions. As a result, the general feeling of tension and uncertainty that ran through Taylor’s earlier work is largely absent. In its place is an overall feeling of sublime relaxation. The album’s second track, “Saturday’s Song”, is kind of emblematic of Taylor’s shift in attitude: where his songs used to question the meaning of everything, here he’s singing about the pleasures of letting loose and relaxing on a Saturday. For longtime fans, this will be something of a drastic shift for the group, but slight as Taylor’s focus is this time around, the relaxed feel of Lateness Of Dancers quite suits him.
Elsewhere, though, this is very much a Hiss Golden Messenger album, and Taylor and Hirsch are as adventurous as ever. More so than the last few albums from the pair, the record is a smorgasbord of styles: everything from straight country to Laurel Canyon pop to elegaic gospel gets incorporated into the group’s sound here. In many ways, the duo’s work recalls some of the early brewings of alt-country, but Hiss Golden Messenger isn’t nearly as obviously indebted to any specific group or style. As always, Taylor’s skills as a musical chameleon remain impressive. His distinctive voice, a baritone with just a hint of twang to it, seems to fit whatever style the band happen to be playing in at any moment. He provides a crucial amount of character, thus elevating Hiss Golden Messenger from good to nearly great.
Lateness Of Dancers may only be one step forward for Hiss Golden Messenger, but it’s a crucial step forward for the group, one that expands the emotional palette of their music. Even if it is a bit light and airy, that airiness isn’t indicative of emptiness, but a sort of rebirth. If you haven’t met them yet, this is Hiss Golden Messenger. Take the time to say hello. You won’t regret it.