Haw is the name of a river, a modest tributary of the Cape Fear, flowing rocky and swift through 110 miles of Piedmont North Carolina, wending Southeasterly past abandoned and repurposed textile mills, rickety hippie homesteads, and red-clay farmland fringed with pine forests. Green corn in the fields/River running like a wheel. Haw is also one of a few names for a small Siouan tribe that once resided in the eponymous river’s valley and may have alternately known themselves as the Saxapahaw or Sissipahaw. After battling British settlers in the bloody Yamasee War of 1715-17, the Haw disappear from the colonial historical record. Their river remains, rolling on.
“Haw!” how a muleskinner moves a mule to the left. “Haw,” half a laugh.
Haw, herein, is an album of eleven songs about family, faith, and an ill-prophesied future, an artifact almost as archaic, lovely and seldom heard today as directional commands for beasts of burden. M.C. Taylor, who wrote these songs, once lived hard by the Haw with his wife Abigail and their son Elijah—Well I come from the bottom of the river Haw, he sings—but he doesn’t live there anymore. Having followed the slipstream to the relative bustle of nearby Durham, North Carolina, he has composed a new clutch of tunes that conjure the half-remembered dreams of peace promised by our pasts.
When pitted against rampant prognostications of a gathering American darkness in years to come, those easy domestic dreams falter and flicker and perhaps collapse. But if nostalgia is a potion that casts a crooked smoke, these smoky Southern blues suggest that fatalism frames the future. What will be will be enough. Don’t study on the ways of tomorrow. If we allow our yesterdays—our youth—to fade too far into the glow of malleable memory and doddering fondness, our tomorrows will surely assume a dire and bleak fixity.And so we sing out: Goodbye blackened abattoir/Hello, yellow dawn. It takes a worried man to sing such a worried song: Sara Carter knew that, and many other fellow travelers too.
Haw proposes a manifestly mature sense of anxiety and acute but unspectacular workaday pain, mapping a spiritual inscape pricklier and more unknowable than the places explored on Poor Moon (2011), the previous Hiss Golden Messenger record of all new material. Sonically, the arrangements – by turns lush with strings and saxophones and as kitchen-table direct as Bad Debt (2010) – belie the compositions’ Biblical claws with a longing for pastoral comfort, the ease of fellowship, and more minutes than they can contain. I do not go by the Book of Days. These prayers from Babylon posit that we are, all of us, ruled by the distant thunder of memory and ingrown or inherited gospel. The best we can do is to await the next storm with joy and devotion. Some call that faith. I’m trying to learn to love my conqueror.
Taylor’s writing and singing here achieve a tenebrous clarity, invoking—and occasionally challenging—a intermingling cast of prophetic characters both sacred and profane: Daniel, Elijah, the Apostles, and the Son of Man, sure, but also the Peacock Fiddle Band, Mississippi John Hurt, and by implication, Lew Welch, Waylon Jennings, Michael Hurley, and our friend Jefferson Currie II. Say whatever prayer you want: to Jehovah or Yahowah, or Red Rose Nantahala.More than ever before, the supporting players of Hiss Golden Messenger feature as tellers of the tale. Each episode earns a meticulously turned ensemble statement.
In the band’s current incarnation, rhythm section stalwarts Terry Lonergan (drums) and Taylor’s longtime musical brother Scott Hirsch (bass, guitar, and production) are joined by Durham multi-instrumentalist Phil Cook of Megafaun, Black Twig Pickers banjoist Nathan Bowles of Blacksburg, and on Telecaster, Nashville’s own William Tyler. Bobby Crow (saxophone), Matt Cunitz (keys), Gordon Hartin (steel guitar), Joseph DeCosimo (fiddle), Sonia Turner (vocals), and Mark Paulson of the Bowerbirds (strings) also crew, navigatingHaw’s shoals of trouble and delight. Lyrically and musically multifarious and freshly urgent, Haw represents Hiss Golden Messenger’s most ambitious and challenging work yet.
In the end, the record, like the full tilt river, takes us through the gates and past all the creatures with their forkèd tongues (though the serpent is kind, compared to man.) But we needn’t follow it all the way to Cape Fear. Instead, cleave you to the rock; keep the sloughs astern. Row. Here comes Easter Sunday. There’ll be Cheerwine and chicken bog, red drum and Red Horse Bread. Got so drunk on brandywine/The scales fell away. And that’s worth at least half a laugh.
So: haw! Selah!
+The eagerly anticipated, full-length, full-band follow-up to the critically acclaimed 2011 album Poor Moon (PoB-02)
+Available on virgin vinyl, in a deluxe, limited edition of 2000, as well as on CD and digital formats
+Vinyl edition features matte, tip-on jacket, full-color inner sleeve, and digital download coupon
+CD housed in heavy 24 pt matte gatefold wallet
8.0. “Hiss Golden Messenger offers a fine corrective to the recent rash of folk anthems: The songs on Haw pose questions rather than offer easy reassurances, and head Messenger M.C. Taylor is more concerned with spiritual doubt than any kind of comforting certainty. Rarely does dark doubt sound quite so inviting. Taylor understands that faith-- in God, in music, in the flow of the Haw-- is more about the struggle than the resolution.”
- Stephen Deusner, Pitchfork
“North Carolina songwriter M.C. Taylor doesn’t describe faith as a safe place so much as the destination across some unbridgeable gulf. Haw is a deep and stunning thing, 11 folk-rock songs steeped in comforting Appalachian melody and restless 21st-century anxiety.”
- Chris Richards, The Washington Post
“Haw is bristly, indelicate, often beautiful but never precious. It bursts with life. Whether Hiss Golden Messenger is whooping it up country style or slinking and slithering in a late-night approximation of Stax-ish soul, there’s a directness in its attack. These songs don’t refer to certain styles of music, they embody them, contradict them, warp them and, in the process, breathe life into them.”
- Jennifer Kelly, Dusted
9/10. “MC Taylor’s 2011 album as Hiss Golden Messenger, Poor Moon, blended folk, soul, and gospel, revealing Taylor as a writer inside his own lyrical universe, hewn from Biblical imagery and folk mores. Haw is the same, but more so. The arrangements are bigger, the language more dense, the symbolism darker. Taylor is serious enough to understand that deliverance and pain are eternally intertwined.”
- Alistair McKay, Uncut
"His finest full-length yet… gorgeous country-soul is both regionally astute and deeply satisfying on a number of levels."
- Spin, “5 Best New Artists for April 2013”
Four stars. “Ancient stories of family, faith, and future… Taylor’s beseeching voice and invigorating take on gospel is sincere and moving.”
“While Bad Debt and Poor Moon dealt with Taylor’s questions about God, Haw centers on the family. Its 11 songs are perfectly crafted and expertly rendered.”
- Davis Inman, American Songwriter
“It's largely a hot-blooded record, folk-rock thick with the blue-eyed soul elements -- half Southern, half Californian -- and countrified swagger that distinguished the excellent Poor Moon. But unlike the posturing that mars many contemporary iterations of this sort of music, Haw's particular vigor (and that of HGM in general) isn't a put-on. M.C. Taylor's songs are brave, frank, grown up. The things they tackle and plumb -- family, faith, ecstasy, salvation, virtue -- cause lesser talents (and, compared to Taylor, most are lesser talents) to fumble and fail. It's no understatement, and still not quite saying it, to say that M.C. Taylor is one of the most effective songwriters working today."
- Nathan Salsburg, Other Music
Four stars. “This follow-up to 2010’s magnificent Poor Moon is no less exemplary than its predecessor… Sounding like it was recorded by a babbling river close to a magical forest, [it] gets the ooh and aah reaction of first contact with an eclipse. Taylor’s voice and lyrics manage to sound bafflingly deep and simply affecting by turn. Nowt left to do but play it again.”
- Max Bell, Record Collector
“Throughout these songs, Taylor's lyrics and the grain in his voice reveal that, whatever truths there are in these songs, they come from antiquity, and the land itself, which is an extension of the divine. The many different musics on Haw are familiar, timeless; they can be endlessly recombined for new purposes. But HGM stand out because they don't combine them so much as play them simultaneously and inseparably as part of a single tradition. In a decade or two, Haw will sound as warm, clear, and spooky as it does today.”
- Thom Jurek, AllMusic
Four stars. “A love letter to both the geography and people of North Carolina… When HGM stretch out they become remarkable. Americana is often a genre with sepia-tinged glasses on; this is a rare and colorful leap forward.”
- Andy Fyfe, Q Magazine
"MC Taylor has been quietly building an excellent discography of country-blues-soul-some-other-stuff-pop as Hiss Golden Messenger. Haw, his band’s newest record, is also its most clarified and beautifully bittersweet vision to date. Hiss Golden Messenger isn’t new, and this isn’t the band’s first great record, but—if there’s any justice for great music—it’ll be the record that puts them on whatever map they want to be on. Because whatever path they forge on that map is worth following."
- Matthew Fiander, PopMatters
“Haw is one of those albums that hits you like a bullet of light and brightens your day. As vital, uplifting, and righteous as drinking beers in the sunshine.”
- Was Ist Das?