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"Poor Moon"

Hiss Golden Messenger – Poor Moon
14 May 2012, 08:57 Written by Janne Oinonen

American songwriting tradition is rife with themes of travel and moving on, of facing down a dirt track with a suitcase in your hand whilst storm clouds gather; a fact most certainly not lost on MC Taylor, a keen student of folklore who, with multi-instrumentalist Scott Hirsch, forms the nucleus of the ever-evolving Hiss Golden Messenger collective. The characters on Poor Moon, the fourth Hiss Golden Messenger release, rescued from obscurity by Tompkins Square after a tiny pressing of just 500 last year, are frequently captured in a state of transition, be it physical or metaphysical.

That’s where the links between Americana conventions and Poor Moon mostly end. Most artists worship Neil Young and Gram Parsons. Taylor, Hirsch and their collaborators appear a lot more impressed with the laidback, distinctly un-showy genre-hopping of JJ Cale – check out the easygoing yet still menacing swamp-mist groove of the highly addictive ‘Call Him Daylight’ – and artists such as Larry Jon Wilson and Mickey Newbury (whose deep-blue 1969 classic Looks Like Rain is referenced in the sound of rainfall that fills the gap between some of the tracks here) who operated at the halfway point between country and Southern soul some 40 years ago.

Taylor’s grasp on these oft-overlooked source materials is second to none, as anyone who’s encountered his excellent Wah-Wah Cowboys mixtapes can testify. However, he packs enough songwriterly muscle to avoid resorting to pointless pastiche. Last year’s From Country Hai East Cotton expanded on the stark and (perhaps appropriately) hiss-infested early releases by dabbling in, among other things, early Steely Dan-hued FM rock and John Martyn’s dub folk. Whereas that mini-album came across as a collection of disparate styles linked together by Taylor’s voice and songs, Poor Moon achieves a cohesive yet still diverse sound. The 16 musicians who contribute to the album are used sparingly to add arresting detail to otherwise stripped-down tracks, resulting in an album that’s halfway between a mud-splattered country honky-tonk and a rough rock ‘n’ roll dive, occasionally within the same track.

Some of these 12 slow-burning songs are best described by the title of the hugely infectious opener ‘Blue Country Mystic’; strange and distinctly downcast dispatches from the place where reality and myth get mixed up. Others involve sympathetic character studies of individuals who’ve not made the wisest possible choices in their lives. Combine the two, and you’ve a whiff of Iron & Wine – only with Sam Beam’s obsession with rivers, mountains and other natural imagery replaced by bourbon, seedy motel rooms and a generous dollop of religion – and the underappreciated Portland, Oregon veterans Richmond Fontaine, albeit with their trademark bleakness eased up by Taylor’s marginally more optimistic outlook.

Taylor’s stock-in-trade is seemingly straightforward songs that accumulate hypnotic momentum over repeated listens as the depth of the lyrics gradually becomes obvious. Equipped with a title that could almost be a parody of religion- and doom-splattered autopilot Americana, ‘Jesus Shot Me in the Head’ is a case in point. The song’s deceptively simple but powerful tale of a hopeless drunk clutching one last chance at a decent life gains haunting power once it’s suggested that to his downtrodden character, finding salvation just might mean giving up on life, the old timey fiddle melody that peppers the track’s unhurried fatback bar-room groove possibly depicting the sound of the celestial choir the protagonist hopes to join soon. Coupled with the gnarly junkie’s relapse growl ‘Super Blue’ that precedes it, it makes for a towering peak on an album not exactly lacking in superb songs and performances.

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