This is music in its most “live” sense.
As Hiss Golden Messenger, singer-songwriter M.C. Taylor has built an impressive catalog over the last decade or so, moving from introspective, spectral folk rock to The Band-aping laidback country of his latest, Hallelujah Anyhow. Enlisting the talents of more than a dozen additional musicians and vocalists, the album carries with it a communal, decidedly pastoral vibe, one steeped in an era long past but heavily fetishized by a certain segment of the Americana-leaning end of the indie spectrum. Like Matthew Houck and his Phosphorescent project, Taylor traffics in country rock heavily influenced by the post-hippie/pre-outlaw scene that could just as easily be classified as singer-songwriter fare as it is country. It’s an easy-going, amiable approach that passes by effortlessly, the music and melodies commingling to produce a soothing balm perfect for late-night listening or simply looking to survive the day in these increasingly trying times.
“Jaw” rides the wave of a gently surging chord progression that builds ever so slightly throughout, almost imperceptibly adding drums, additional guitars, pedal steel, mandolin and gently humming horns. Playing like one long, subtle crescendo, there’s a hypnotic quality to the unobtrusive instrumental backing wending its way in and around Taylor’s nasal croon. An early highpoint, it, like the rest of the album, shows itself to be in no hurry. Yet rather than conjuring images of after midnight navel gazing, Hallelujah Anyhow feels more the product of a lazy afternoon spent drifting off in the warmth of the sun.
Phil Cook’s piano on “Harder Rain” is strikingly reminiscent of Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson’s exuberantly ascending lines, taking each verse just that much higher, crashing on the shore of the chorus. Indeed, The Band (with and without Bob Dylan) is a clear reference point for much of the material here, Taylor himself sounding more than a little like Dylan on “I Am the Song.” Yet rather than mere vocal affectation, it feels more an extension of Taylor’s vocal persona on the album and, as “I Am the Song” is one of the rowdier tracks on Hallelujah Anyhow – relatively speaking – the added muscle and nasal twang helps him rise above the fray.
Throughout, drummer Darren Jessee coaxes the band along with a slow, Levon Helm-esque shuffle, heavy on the backbeat. It’s an understated approach perfectly suited to the deceptively involved arrangements on tracks like “Gulfport You’ve Been on My Mind.” Where Taylor’s voice takes center stage in the mix – as well it should – it’s lovingly enveloped not only by sympathetic playing, but also angelic harmonies from the likes of Tift Merritt, John Paul White, Tamisha Waden and others. This type of communal intimacy only serves to further the hippie/country vibe so well executed throughout.
There’s nothing here that will change the world or one’s perception of music (country or otherwise), but it’s not meant to. Hallelujah Anyhow, like the title suggests, is more of a bashful-but-confident shrug of an album, one predicated on a deep-seated respect for the music’s tradition and a group of like-minded individuals coming together to make music for the sake of doing so. It’s an approach that comes through loud and clear, making for an enjoyable listening experience, if not entirely memorable. But it’s not supposed to. This is music in its most “live” sense, a product of the moment in which it was created, relying on the chemistry between musicians, the resonance of the room and the soft glow of collective creativity. For the best example of this, just listen to the satisfied outro of “John the Gun” and Michael Lewis’ masterful saxophone solo. It’s one of a number of subtle moments that, taken together as a whole, make Hallelujah Anyhow a thoroughly rewarding listen.