The struggle of the jam band

Hiss Golden Messenger searches for its sound in latest studio album


The folk rock band released its newest album, “Hallelujah Anyhow,” only 12 months after the release of their country-folk masterpiece “Heart Like a Levee.” 

Courtesy Merge Records | Cavalier Daily

Hiss Golden Messenger has a way of blending harmonious soul with country riffs and instrumentation reminiscent of 1960s jam bands. The Durham, N.C. folk rock band led by MC Taylor released its newest album, “Hallelujah Anyhow,” only 12 months after the release of their country-folk masterpiece “Heart Like a Levee.” 

Taylor’s voice is unique to the folk group, and the band’s specific sound stands out with every release since the group’s formation in 2007, even when the songs all begin to sound similar. However, the past two records from the group have introduced an interesting genre of soulful country-folk that incorporates rock, funk and the classic “jam band” elements — the North Carolina group played at Lockn’ Festival this summer, a festival frequently known for Grateful Dead cover bands. 

Since the Grateful Dead emerged, the idea of the “jam band” has evolved and grown over time. Local festivals such as Lockn’ and Festy evoke these sounds, creating atmospheres of relaxation and freedom of spirit. Like jam bands themselves, jam band culture has grown significantly since the ‘60s, as modern festival goers clad themselves in Grateful Dead pins, tapestries and an air of spirituality that manifests itself in the hour-long dance parties inspired by guitar noodling. 

Another element of jam band culture is the inevitable difference between live shows and studio albums, which can be highlighted in the new record from Hiss Golden Messenger, among others. While jam bands can play the same song for hours during a live set, the same can’t often be said for studio records. “Hallelujah Anyhow” tries hard to evoke experimental saxophone and electric guitar noodling that comes from jam band culture, but still remains rather tame in terms of rhythm and passion. 

The songs from Hiss Golden Messenger, while lyrically soulful and instrumentally pleasing, all seem to blend together within the studio records. Save for standout hits like “Biloxi” and “Saturday’s Song,” many of the songs are forgettable. “Hallelujah Anyhow” includes similar hit songs such as “Domino (Time Will Tell),” but the songs all sound very similar — beautiful melodies and guitar riffs coupled with some saxophone elements in the background and Taylor’s voice soulfully singing poignant country lyrics. 

Earlier records from Hiss Golden Messenger seem to create more intense jams and rhythmic styles, and these aren’t replicated as well in the new release. Even the single released prior to “Hallelujah Anyhow,” a powerful ballad called “Standing in the Doorway,” creates a more powerful country-rock sound that seems to be what the group is going for. 

From the sounds of the past two records, Hiss Golden Messenger seems to be aiming for more poignant lyrical and melodic styles while also trying to create powerful and dynamic music. The record struggles to find that perfect mix, but still produces beautiful folk songs. 

Upbeat songs such as “Jaw” create an atmosphere of ease and feel-good vibes, as Taylor sings with a mandolin and a steady drum beat. Other slower songs such as “Harder Rain” allow Taylor to expand his soulful voice into more emotional realms while blending beautiful chords into the mix. Individually, the songs are beautiful and well-made. As a whole, however, the group seems to be aiming for something they haven’t yet achieved, creating a body of work much like the one released a year prior. 

The album highlights the challenge the artist must face when transitioning from jamming live at Lockn’ to compressing their sounds into a studio record. While Hiss Golden Messenger evokes power and dynamism live, the new album lacks that same power, instead using Taylor’s lyrics as the source of passion and freedom. 

This classic contradiction is no surprise to country-folk artists who seem to flock to festivals specifically known for their jam band qualities. While it is a given that songs will sound different live than in studio albums, these bands are a different case — they must sacrifice their 30-minute jams and guitar noodling sessions for structured and watered-down recordings in order to appeal to regular audiences and radio stations. However, Hiss Golden Messenger still provides beautiful country-folk music to its fans, letting their sound evolve one record at a time. 

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