ROUTES & BRANCHES
featuring the very best of americana, alt.country and roots music
October 8, 2016
Scott Foley, Purveyor of Dust
I keep flirting with the idea of airing a show featuring all pre-2000 americana, alt.country and roots music. Other thoughts: Long ago I aired a program composed of all Townes Van Zandt, a couple performed by the man himself, with all the rest TVZ covers. What about two hours of songs almost everyone would recognize - the "greatest hits" of our kind of music? An A-B-C show selecting my favorite artist for each letter of the alphabet. Nothing but instrumentals? Or is this counter to my restriction against novelty shows?
For now, we get what we get, and we'll like it: Another collection of new stuff that matters, music that challenges our notions of what fits, and All the Rest. Live Ryan Bingham. Great rusty Two Dollar Pistols. The stentorian tones of Paul Cauthen. And brand new Gillian Welch from 20 years ago ...
I'm a fan of Van. Van Morrison. I was in attendance at the concert that became his 1994 Night In San Francisco record (my wife was quite expecting and slept thru much of the concert, plus Van played far too much saxophone). Sure, there's Astral Weeks and Saint Dominic's Preview and even Into the Music. But my favorite Van happens to be 86's underappreciated No Guru No Method No Teacher. I love his occasional departure into ecstatic reverie, and how he weds folk and soul.
That's a long intro to an appreciation for Hiss Golden Messenger's new Heart Like a Levee record. Born from the ashes of Court & Spark, MC Taylor's initial forays as HGM were more intricate acoustic pastoral folk, sometimes going so far as to include birds, streams and nature sounds between and beneath tracks. It's not especially surprising that Taylor's educational background is as a folklorist and field recorder. 2014's Lateness of Dancers found HGM incorporating a fuller band sound, with occasional horns and gospel touches. I voted it my 3rd favorite album for the year.
Heart Like a Levee was reportedly begun as a commission for Taylor to write music inspired by a collection of black-and-white photos of a coal mining camp in Kentucky. Listeners curious about that project might do well to track down Vestapol, a much more pared back acoustic session that accompanies deluxe editions of the record. While Heart Like a Levee drops the occasional geographical reference point, songs like "Cracked Windshield" or the crushing "Like a Mirror Loves a Hammer" deal more in matters of home and away, dedication to music and focus on the family. The title cut bounces along merrily enough, on strummy mandolin and choral backing vocals, but asks, "Go easy on me / I'm not doing well / Do you hate me honey / As much as I hate myself". The record offers as many acoustic as electric moments, but is largely propelled by what Rolling Stone called a "gospelized country-soul" vibe. And MC Taylor often seems to be writing from a very conflicted place of self doubt and confession.
Whereas much of Haw and Poor Moon addressed the world from a more introspective vantage, Levee makes a good deal more noise. Like Van Morrison, Taylor is becoming a spirit-driven bard of sorts, a bandleader driving into spirals of reverie alongside the Cook brothers of Megafaun, Matt McCaughan of Bon Iver and pitch perfect backing vocals from Tift Merritt and Alexandra Sauser-Monnig of Mountain Man. "Biloxi" establishes an immediate country rock current as one of the year's strongest singles. But in the midst of the rootsy stomp he's singing, "All around my old hometown I was known as a loner / Oh you know I wasn't lonely / I just liked being alone / Lord it's hard". "Tell Her I'm Just Dancing" is the heaviest Hiss Golden moment to date. Alongside "Like a Mirror Loves a Hammer", there's an uncommonly urgent propulsion behind the cuts. It's on tracks like "Happy Day (Sister My Sister)" and the closer "Highland Grace" that the Van Morrison comparison is best appreciated. Both cuts are deeply soulful reveries, lovely "gospelized" extensions of folk 'n soul. Heart Like a Levee is as personal as anything from MC Taylor's catalog, while establishing a new highwater mark for inviting us into the places where he celebrates the stuff that makes life worth bearing.
- Ryan Bingham, "Southside of Heaven (live)" Ryan Bingham Live (Axster Bingham, 16) D
- Blitzen Trapper, "Love the Way You Walk Away (live)" Live At Third Man Records (Third Man, 16) D
- Longest Day of the Year, "Damage Done" Seth & May EP (Mulewax, 16) C
- Handsome Family, "Red Door" Unseen (Handsome, 16)
- John Calvin Abney, "Weekly Rate Palace" Far Cries and Close Calls (Horton, 16)
- Two Dollar Pistols, "There Goes a Heartache" You Ruined Everything (Yep Roc, 02)
- Nathan Bowles, "Burnt Ends Rag" Whole & Cloven (Paradise of Bachelors, 16) D
^ Hiss Golden Messenger, "Heart Like a Levee" Heart Like a Levee (Merge, 16)
- Tift Merritt, "Dusty Old Man" single (Yep Roc, 16) D
- Aaron Lee Tasjan, "Ready To Die" Silver Tears (New West, 16)
- Shovels & Rope, "Last Hawk" Little Seeds (New West, 16)
- William Elliott Whitmore, "Old Devils" Animals In the Dark (Anti, 09)
- Courtney Marie Andrews, "15 Highway Lanes" Honest Life (Mama Bird, 16)
- M Lockwood Porter, "Strong Enough" How To Dream Again (Black Mesa, 16)
- Dan Layus (w/Secret Sisters), "Only Gets Darker" Dangerous Things (Plated, 16) D
- Bap Kennedy, "I Should Have Said" Reckless Heart (Last Chance, 16) D
- Drive-by Truckers, "Filthy and Fried" American Band (ATO, 16)
- Paul Cauthen, "Once You're Gone" My Gospel (Lightning Rod, 16)
- Tami Neilson, "Holy Moses" Don't Be Afraid (Outside, 16)
- Seth Walker, "Turn This Thing Around" Gotta Get Back (Royal Potato Family, 16)
- Band of Heathens, "Oklahoma Gypsy Shuffler" Highway Prayer: Tribute to Adam Carroll (Eight 30, 16)
- Deer Tick, "Twenty Miles" Black Dirt Sessions (Partisan, 10)
- Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster, "Laid Low" Constant Stranger (Big Legal Mess, 16)
- Gillian Welch, "Dry Town (demo)" Boots No. 1: Official Revival Bootleg (Acony, 16) D
- Roger Hoover, "Dust" Pastures (Last Chance, 16) D
- Jason Isbell, "Blow Wind Blow" Musical Mojo of Dr John (Concord, 16)
- Chuck Prophet, "Countrified Inner-City Technological Man" Night Surfer (Yep Roc, 14)