Lateness of Dancers, Hiss Golden Messenger's debut for Merge, is a more melodic and polished affair than we're used to; it is also true that founder and songwriter M.C. Taylor's songwriting and vision have grown considerably since 2013's fine Haw. Lateness of Dancers -- its title taken from a Eudora Welty story -- retains that source's earthiness as it engages everything from folk, country-rock, back-country fiddle music, and even Southern R&B, the latter by way of an electric piano whose use recalls Muscle Shoals and Stax. Taylor is accompanied by longstanding partner and bassist Scott Hirsch (who also plays mandolin and pedal steel) and their veteran drummer Terry Lonergan. Guitarist William Tyler also returns and contributes considerably. Vocalist Alexandra Sauser-Monnig of Mountain Man and Megafaun's Phil and Brad Cook, as well as others, also appear. Opener "Lucia" borrows the one-two, one-two rhythmic thump so prevalent near the end of Bob Dylan's Street Legal -- smearing it with Bobby Charles' greasy groove sensibilities as Tyler's wah-wah Stratocaster, distorted steel guitars, and Wurlitzer blur in the backdrop. Taylor's lyric is couched in reverie and symbolic mysticism, and rolls atop the center confidently. While "Mahogany Dread" digs into the past, it celebrates the more humble present with gratitude, underscored by a sprawling B-3 and Tyler's tight, tasteful fills. The title track scales it all back. A simple acoustic guitar introduces Taylor's grainy vocal in offering some of the record's finest lyrics, a piano, Sauser-Monnig's gentle backing vocal, and a subtle organ to underscore his purposeful delivery. "I'm a Raven (Shake Children)" is a downright snaky, nearly funky blues; Charles' spirit and Dylan's R&B period come wafting -- though more economically -- through again. A different version of that idea -- this time evocative of J.J. Cale -- haunts the stellar "Southern Grammar." "Black Dog Wind (Rose of Roses)" is a slow country waltz. Its lyrics juxtapose the lessons of a father recalled in the protagonist's determination to make his own way no matter the cost. The wisdom of those teachings is illustrated fully -- if not deliberately -- in "Drum," the bittersweet, breezy, back-porch fiddle tune that closes the record. Four albums in, Lateness of Dancers reveals the arrived-at maturity in Taylor's songwriting, and his ability to convey, in the first-person narratives of his protagonists, a way through the complex notions and pain of living in the world by embracing them on their own terms, with no attempt at escape. The songs, arrangements, and Taylor's and Hirsch's deft production are all rimmed with -- not drenched in -- light. Taken together, they underscore the existential grit and elemental spirituality that illustrate Hiss Golden Messenger's best work.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek