Throughout Heart Like a Levee, the latest record from criminally under-the-radar Hiss Golden Messenger, frontman M.C. Taylor fights with himself. As a working musicians who has flirted with commercial success, Taylor preaches the struggle of finding a balance between family life with kids back home in Durham, North Carolina, and the demands of being a working musicians whose paycheck only comes when the van is running. “Do you hate me honey, as much as I hate myself,” he asks his family on the title track, before hitting the open road with his band in tow. His seventh full-length release under the Messenger moniker, Levee is by far Taylor’s best effort to date, full of honesty and grit and showcasing the individual talents of a fantastic set of supporting musicians.
Hiss Golden Messenger’s lineup has shrank and swelled over the last 8 eight years. For Levee, Taylor is joined by brothers Phil and Bradley Cook (of Megafaun fame), Bon Iver drummer Matt McCaughan, Minneapolis-based sax wizard Mike Lewis, and the incomparable Tift Merrit and Alexandra Sauser-Monnig (Mountain Man) on backing vocals. Together, Taylor and Co. craft something between swamp pop and Southern gothic, referencing Appalachian folk, soul, and traditional country. Whereas previous Messenger records found Taylor trying to define his sound, Levee showcases a songwriter at his most comfortable.
Levee opens with “Biloxi,” an uptempo tune that recalls the best highway rock of the 1970s. A grooving conga pattern gives the track a Marvin Gaye meet Grateful Dead feel. Taylor sings, “All around my old hometown I was known as a loner, you know I wasn’t lonely, I just liked being alone.” Any musician who’s spent significant time on the road can tell you about that loneliness, when every bar starts to look the same and the crowd’s a sea of interchangeable faces.
A soothing blend of country, soul, and Americana gives the album’s title track it’s signature mix. “Levee” is Sunday morning brunch making music. “Lying in bed with nothing to say.” With it’s gospelized vocals from Merrit, “Levee” is ready for your Fall Music playlist, and arguably Hiss Golden Messenger’s best work.
Mike Lewis’ pulsing saxophone moves “Like a Mirror Loves a Hammer.” Over a sweaty Mississippi stomp (think Southern fried TV on the Radio) Lewis and Taylor craft a tune unlike anything else in the Hiss catalog. It’s been a good Fall for Lewis, who features prominently on both Heart Like a Levee and the latest from Bon Iver, 22, A Million.
“Cracked Windshield” is a sleepy morning hymnal, almost lullaby-like. Much of Levee was written from the road, and you can imagine Taylor sitting in a Motel 6 early one morning, waiting for his band mates to wake up for van call. This is Taylor’s leit motif — the road, motels and truck stops, and most importantly, the loved ones he leaves at home every time the road calls his name. From Poor Moon to Lateness of Dancers and now Levee, the road is always calling Taylor and his struggle with what that entails fuels his songwriting.
There isn’t a disposable song on Heart Like A Levee. “As the Crow Flies” bounces in Mississippi mud, “Happy Day” is written for porch swings and sipping sweet tea, “Highland Grace” closes the record with a sweet 33soul sound. It’s a shame “Grace” is buried 11 songs deep but the interplay of Taylor, Merrit, and Lewis is outstanding.
Hiss Golden Messenger is poised for a breakout album, and deservedly so. His seventh full length and second with Merge Records, should inevitably do just that. Taylor’s common man aesthetic and thoughtful approach to songwriting is palpable and Heart Like a Levee is full of infectious songs that will soundtrack your Fall.