On 2014's Lateness of Dancers, M.C. Taylor's Hiss Golden Messenger embraced a more blues- and gospel-oriented sound without leaving behind their trademark folk-inspired Americana. Heart Like a Levee is another step forward; its roots come from the soul, funky R&B, and gospel-ized blues the South delivered so abundantly during the1960s and '70s via Muscle Shoals, Stax, Volt, Hi, Goldwax, and Josie.
These songs reflect a period in 2015 when Taylor struggled with the decision to forsake the security a day job offered his family and pursue music full-time. His cast includes old friends Phil and Bradley Cook of Megafaun, Bon Iver drummer/percussionist Matt McCaughan, and Mountain Man vocalist Alexandra Sauser-Monnig. Newcomers include vocalists Tift Merritt and Sonyia Turner, and saxophonist Michael Lewis. "Biloxi" opens with congas and a drum kit, strummed acoustic guitars, Taylor's mandolin, and a high-lonesome Dobro that weds country and soul à la Delaney & Bonnie. The title track is a tender, taut reflection of self-doubt, vulnerability, and commitment. Mandolin, banjo, Wurlitzer, and backing singers buoy Taylor's delivery: "...Is it too heavy honey/Did I carry my piece of the fire? …If you let me honey/I'll set the world on fire for you…." The swampy, funky gospel blues in "Like a Mirror Loves a Hammer," with its nasty clavinet, multi-tracked saxophones, and plodding bassline wed the eeriness of the early Staple Singers, the soaring choruses of Joe South, and the funky jamming of the Meters. "Cracked Windshield" harkens back to the Lateness of Dancers era, but "As the Crow Flies" offers the kind of Wurlitzer line Spooner Oldham minted: it gets grafted onto a raucous, Memphis-style rockabilly piano -- à la Jim Dickinson's Dixie Fried -- and multi-tracked lead and backing vocals recall a David Porter production. The steamy slide guitar break is icing on the cake. "Happy Day (Sister My Sister)" is glorious, uplifting country-soul gospel. Turner's and Sauser-Monnig's backing vocals add heavenly ethereality to Taylor's earthbound singing. "Ace of Cups Hung Low Band" dances the tightrope between swampy blues and choogling roots rock with strings and punchy saxophones adding heft and texture. Closer "Highland Grace" is an uncluttered attempt at soul as Taylor's interplay with his backing singers is intuitive, sweet, and stirring, carried by acoustic piano (think Dan Penn), saxophones, shuffling backbeat, in-the-pocket bass, and strummed guitars.
Despite its many references, Heart Like a Levee is just not a throwback record. Taylor combines, inhabits, and adapts his inspirations in the present through the strength of his writing. His melodies are basic; his words are anything but. They bridge the temporal to the eternal, the carnal to the divine, the homespun to the historic; they resonate directly through the grain of his unaffected yet emotionally expressive singing voice. Due to its bright, open production and quirky presentation, Heart Like a Levee is a watermark for Hiss Golden Messenger. Seldom have hard times sounded this uplifting.