If you’ve ever lived in a big city and then left for the boonies, a couple of things will never get old. One is the relative novelty of being able to look up and see stars — not just one or two of them, but a sea of them, entire constellations that you only recognize from books, expanses of glittering sparks that city lights always hid from you. The other is crickets. The first time you go for a walk on summer night and you notice that chirping, it’s all you want to hear. There’s something nourishing and welcoming about all those bugs rubbing their legs together and trying to fuck each other, and it’s a sound you don’t realize how much you miss until you return to it. If, however, you live somewhere where you can’t hear the crickets, then Lateness Of Dancers, the fifth album that M.C. Taylor has recorded under his Hiss Golden Messenger alias, is happy to bring that sound to you. Lots of people from the Southeastern indie roots-music scene play on Lateness Of Dancers: Steel-string impressionist William Tyler, the Cook brothers from Megafaun, Mountain Man’s Alexandra Sauser-Monnig. But the most important guests on the album might be the crickets you can hear chirping throughout the title track. Lateness Of Dancers is, among other things, an album about place, about bringing all your baggage to some comfortable spot and setting it down. And there’s nothing quite as settling, as centering, as that cricket sound. (That’s unless you listen to Lateness Of Dancers somewhere where you’ve already got crickets. Then it’s: “Oh weird, the crickets just got really loud.”)
A quick catch-up on M.C. Taylor: He is not the rambling Southern drifter who he maybe sort of wants you to think he is. (That’s fine. Bob Dylan, Taylor’s clearest inspiration, wasn’t a rambling southern drifter, either, and he turned out fine.) He’s an ex-hardcore guy from California who spent a while fronting an alt-country band called the Court & Spark and who moved to North Carolina to study folklore at UNC. He’s a student of this whole roots-music thing, one who didn’t absorb this music through a grandparent’s musty stack of 78s but who actually had to learn the music, to think hard about the way it works and the way it functions in culture. Gillian Welch has a similar story; they both actors, of a sort, embodying the ancestral musics of the regions that they’ve chosen. That’s a pretty interesting perspective. And while Taylor, on Lateness Of Dancers, occasionally comes up with a trying-too-hard cliche about how he left his mandolin out in the rain or how his daddy played guitar in a bluegrass band, there’s also this sense that he’s working hard to honor multiple traditions, and to put his stamp on them.
Lateness Of Dancers is the first Hiss Golden Messenger album on Merge, after Taylor released a handful of LPs on the smaller Paradise Of Bachelors label. And Merge pretty much justified its investment in Taylor when Taylor came through with the album opener “Lucia, the best song on Lateness Of Dancers and quite possibly the best roots-rock song I’ve heard all year. “Lucia” is a perfect little shrug of a song. The melody, propulsive in a casual sort of way, could’ve come from a mid-’60s California psych-rock song. But the arrangement is basically Allmann Brothers through a cloud of haze; its murmuring electric guitars and sighing organs lazily wrap themselves around each other with complete ease and panache. “She was beauuuuutiful,” Taylor gargle-purrs. “It was circumstance.” But “Lucia” doesn’t evoke the image of the girl Taylor is singing about. Instead, it evokes the image of a bunch of people who are very, very happy to be sitting in a room and playing music together.
On Lateness Of Dancers, the instruments talk to each other in ways that you don’t often hear on recordings — that you’re lucky if you get to hear in live shows. Taylor comes off like a solo-acoustic guy here, but that’s not the case here at all. These songs are fully, deeply orchestrated. They burst with mandolins and pianos and lightly brushed drums and communal backing vocals. Those instruments aren’t straining to be noticed; they’re just finding new ways to pile on melody. At times, the collected efforts of the players in the room sound a lot like late-period Bob Dylan. Especially with Taylor’s rasp in full effect, a song like “I’m A Raven (Snake Children)” could easily be a Time Out Of Mind bonus track. More often, though, Taylor finds room for personality in these old sounds. His voice is craggy and wounded, but it soars in his broken sort of way. Hiss Golden Messenger doesn’t really sound anything like Phosphorescent or the Tallest Man On Earth, but like those guys, he’s done something deceptively difficult: He’s taken old sounds and made them sound personal and real. All that time studying folklore, and on Lateness Of Dancers, Taylor sounds like he’s leaving behind some of his own.
Lateness Of Dancers is out now on Merge.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Interpol’s comeback attempt El Pintor.
• Death From Above 1979’s ripsnorting return The Physical World.
• Yeah Yeah Yeahs leader Karen O’s lo-fi home-recorded solo debut Crush Songs.
• Ryan Adams’ smooth, professional self-titled album.
• Banks’ canny, singer-songwriterly future-soul debut Goddess.
• Esben And The Witch’s slow-building, Steve Albini-recorded A New Nature.
• Simian Mobile Disco’s recorded-live dance-music spaceout Whorl.
• Avi Buffalo’s idiosyncratic sophomore effort At Best Cuckold.
• Ballet School slickly weird indie-pop debut The Dew Lasts An Hour.
• Jhené Aiko’s full-length narco-soul debut Souled Out.
• Sloan’s reliable power-popper Commonwealth.
• Busdriver’s art-rap bugout Perfect Hair.
• Tennis’ casually slick indie-pop groover Ritual In Repeat.
• Lemonade’s shimmering synthpopper Minus Tide.
• Tricky’s brooding, club-informed Adrian Thaws.
• Delta Spirit’s streamlined roots-rocker Into The Wide.
• Valery Gore’s personal champer-pop exercise Idols In The Dark Heart.
• Flowers’ sparse, angelic debut Do What You Want To, It’s What You Should Do.
• PC Worship’s drone-rock monster Social Rust.
• Jesse Marchant’s grand, weathered self-titled debut.
• Mazes’ confidently Brit-rocking Wooden Aquarium.
• In Flames’ soaring, melodic death metaller Siren Charms.
• Godhunter and Secrets Of The Sky’s split LP GH/0ST:S.
• Chumped’s That’s The Thing Is Like EP.
• P. Reign’s Dear America EP.
• Andras Fox’s Vibrate On Silent EP.
• Oliver’s Light Years Away EP.
• Spookyland’s Rock And Roll Weakling EP.