Review: Hiss Golden Messenger – Bed Debt (2010)
It’s been said before that my favorite genre of music is folk noir and it’ll be said again. In fact, it’s about to be said again here, right now: My name is Amber Valentine and my favorite genre of music is folk noir. I love a good murder ballad, or a good ballad that sounds like it’d be good music to murder to. Ballads that sound like it’d be a good tune to listen to whilst reflecting about murder? Well, that’s cool too! When I’m fresh out of murder ballads, I tend to turn to songs that deal with loss of faith and an internal struggle that eats at the narrator like maggots on a week old corpse. The darker the lyrics and the sparser the music, the better, so far as I’m concerned.
A good folk noir band is hard to find and aside from Canada’s Timber Timbre, the brainchild of Taylor Kirk, I thought I’d never find another that would satiate my thirst for the macabre with an acoustic backdrop and vocals so hushed you could hear a pin drop whilst listening.
This, readers, is where I drop my famous line “But I’ve been wrong before”.
It’s been said that Mike Roeder of Play B-Sides, the man who introduced me to Wolfgang Schaefer, knows my musical tastes to a tee. When he recommended to me Hiss Golden Messenger‘s forthcoming album Bad Debt, not only was I eager to listen but I (very literally) dropped all my current projects to give Hiss Golden Messenger my ears.
“Start with track seven.” He told me. I didn’t argue.
Usually, when I review an album, I do my research. I want to know who this person is and where this music came from, in a sense that involves dates, names, and places. But with Hiss Golden Messenger, I feel strangely at peace with the art itself as it’s been presented before me. Who is the man behind Hiss Golden Messenger? Well, Roeder can shed some light on that. I prefer to think up my own Bon Iver-esque story about a man who entered a cabin one day and emerged with a masterpiece the next.
To be honest, all I know about the man behind Hiss Golden Messenger and the masterpiece that is Bad Debt is what I cribbed from Roeder’s piece on the man. “MC Taylor (is) erstwhile of The Court & Spark and (his) alter-ego Jai Lil Diamond (is) Hiss Golden Messenger.” Wait. What? Do I call you Jai Lil Diamond? MC Taylor? Hiss Golden Messenger? Um, I’ll go with Taylor, I think. To be honest, the whole thing confuses me slightly. Regardless, Hiss Golden Messenger makes some of the finest and least confusing music I’ve been exposed to since Timber Timbre released their self titled third LP last year and something about that feels like home to me.
Bad Debt opens with “Balthazar’s Song”, a track that would have found my completely rapt with the album had I not already been so based upon the infamous “track seven” I mentioned earlier. “Balthazar’s Song”, as with many tracks on Bad Debt, is the type of song to soundtrack a night alone, drinking whiskey (perhaps with a hound dog) whilst trying to suss out your life. (Yes, this is my scenario that takes place in the cabin. Plaid is also involved. There might be a shotgun.) Hiss Golden Messenger, however, isn’t music for moping, no matter how isolating the aforementioned scenario sounds. Rather, Hiss Golden Messenger is music for figuring things out: Figuring out heaven and hell, figuring out love, life, and figuring out the workings and trappings of the heart and mind.
It’s heady stuff and it’s far too much for one man to get a firm grasp on, no matter how skilled he is at guitar. “Just outside of this town, oh Lord, I had to break down,” Taylor sings on “Straw Man Red Sun River Gold”. “That’s the closest that I’ve come to goin’ home.”
“Home”, I’m pretty sure isn’t a house in the suburbs, an apartment in Brooklyn (Taylor’s homebase), or even that cabin I’ve grown so fond of. In fact, I’m pretty positive that when Taylor talks about “goin’ home”, he’s talking about kicking the proverbial bucket and finding out just what it is that happens when you die.
Bad Debt is rife with questions for God and pleading melodies sent Jesus’s way but this album is more in step, thematically, with David Bazan’s loss-of-faith opus Curse Your Branches than any album with a strong sense of faith. While listening to Bad Debt, you get the sense that this is a record about struggle and on the title track, when Taylor begs “hangman, stay just a little while”, you understand his hard times even if you don’t understand what those hard times are about. A lady? Liquor? Both are hinted at on “Super Blue”, particularly the latter as he’s “two days clean and feelin’ mean, so let’s go out tonight”.
Bad Debt recalls, in equal parts, the ragged blues and front porch musicians of eras long since gone and modern folk legends like Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and Iron & Wine, only with more edge than Sam Beam, more understatement than Will Oldham, and with a little original Hank Williams tossed in for good measure. Still not sold? How’s about you stream the entire album, perfectly legally, and get back to me?