(Upcoming Release) Hiss Golden Messenger’s Bad Debt Collected on November 17th

Back in May I was exchanging e-mails with MC Taylor– erstwhile of The Court & Spark and alter-ego Jai Lil Diamond of Hiss Golden Messenger— about his last release Root Work which was a re-imagining of some tracks from Country Hai East Cotton. (BTW: Root Work is available in digital and vinyl formats. The vinyl version was limited to 100 and is not sold out yet– go get it!!) In the volley that ensued he let it drop that he was already planning a release for this fall. “It’s a gospel record–” he said, “or at least some serious philosophical music– recorded with just me and an acoustic guitar into a classroom tape recorder at the kitchen table this past winter. It’s very crude-sounding, but I think it’s compelling and deserving of its own release.”

He attached an mp3 of “Jesus Shot Me in the Head” which upon the first listen had me transfixed, and frankly even now as I listen to it, I’m forced to do nothing else until its tale is told. As MC points out, it has a very low-fidelity esthetic, but the starkness pulls the listener in. My first thought upon hearing the song and its different personality from previous recordings by HGM or the Court & Spark was that it was like the “Luke the Drifter” personae that Hank Williams Sr., adopted to deliver his religious songs.

He sent me three other songs to listen to and they all were obviously cut from the same cloth. “Straw Man Red Sun River Gold,” “The Serpent Is Kind (Compared to Man), and what would end up being the title track– “Bad Debt.”

Over the summer I got small glimpses of the upcoming release– I hang in some Internet circles that MC and some of his musician friends do and they were talking about it. In late June, Anthony Puglisi– who did the mastering for Root Work— posted that he was listening to “Balthazar” from an upcoming album Bad Debt. This prompted me to search for this album title and I found via last.fm that a couple of people were listening to an album called Bad Debt! It was coming!

In August, MC updated the Facebook Fan Page for Hiss Golden Messenger that John Mulvey had included Bad Debt on a playlist in Uncut Magazine. It listed the record label as Blackmaps (under construction at the moment). Some quick searching turned up that Blackmaps is a book publisher and record label headquartered in London and Tokyo. In fact, MC mentioned Blackmaps in a post to the website for his record label Heaven and Earth Magic.

This last week it occurred to me that I should look to see if any more crumbs of Bad Debt had shown up on the Internet table– and they had! For one thing, I found this really great Bandcamp player of the ENTIRE RECORD! The player also informs us that the release date is November 17th, 2010!

The little bit of PR provided by the label informs us also that there will be another release before a full album in Summer, 2011! I sent a note off to MC to see if he can provide us any additional information. In the meantime, I present to you Bad Debt…

Hiss Golden Messenger ‘Bad Debt’ by blackmaps

Update: Taylor sent me an e-mail yesterday with the correct cover art (the artwork on the Bandcamp player will be the art for the CD itself). Pretty cool– reminds me of the Jerry Garcia handprint. He also said that some time after the CD release of Bad Debt, he would do a very limited run of vinyl (100 copies, like he did with Root Work) on his label Heaven and Earth Magic! We’ll keep you posted on that!

The Long Journey of “Country Hai East Cotton” by Hiss Golden Messenger

Hiss Golden Messenger - Country Hai East Cotton
Once upon a time there was a little band from San Francisco called The Court & Spark. For seven years they crafted their own flavor of Americana and Rock in relative obscurity. For those people who did hear their music, most– like me– became fans.

I first heard about The Court & Spark on All Things Considered one cold night at the end of 2001 when Sarah Bardeen reviewed Bless You. I had never heard anything quite like it, and the loping clockwork percussion paired with singer M.C. Taylor’s melancholy vocals and slide guitar– particularly on “To See The Fires” had me tracking the album down immediately and I followed their career until they disbanded in 2007 following the release of Hearts– an album I thought was their best effort to that point.

As announced from their website, “seeing as how we’re all involved in different musical projects, it seems best to retire the C&S name for a while.” M.C. Taylor and Scott Hirsch moved to the East Coast and would continue to work together in a new project cryptically called Hiss Golden Messenger. At the same time they announced the new direction, they also announced from their MySpace page a live CD for sale of a show that Hiss Golden Messenger did called Live at the Fernwood Lodge, Big Sur 4/22/07. I ordered that right away since it was a limited hand-stamped run. When I received the CD, I also got another nondescrept CD-R with only a Sharpie-scrawled “HARPO” on it.

The songs contained on this CD were, according to M.C., “very rough mixes” of an album he was hoping to release after he sorted out getting a label and taking to a studio for mixing and mastering. He was very modest about the recording since I guess he felt it wasn’t done, going so far as to suggest I could share it on my site if I wanted.

The music contained on HARPO was mesmerizing. It was really a continuation of the experimentation I’d heard on the last Court & Spark album, Hearts. I was a bit giddy with this secret album and I did share it with a couple of people I knew who loved The Court & Spark as much as I did. I really felt that the modesty that M.C. had about HARPO’s fitness to be released was completely unfounded! If these were home demos on some hissy old 4-track, I would have still been excited to hear it, and would have shared it out– but I saw the potential of these songs to be much more than mere “rough mixes.” The damn thing sounded complete, to me! I know that others who had received HARPO felt the same way.

As it turned out the songs on HARPO would become Country Hai East Cotton remixed and in a different track sequence. I received a review copy of Country Hai East Cotton in early May and have been listening to it in my regular diet of music. The resequencing was a bit jarring at first, since I was so familiar with the sequence on HARPO. The mix was certainly an improvement on Country Hai East Cotton over HARPO, so the effort of taking it to a studio for some polish yielded exceptional results. The levels were pushed up a bit and the instrument head space has been expanded. HARPO was a good headphone album, but Country Hai East Cotton is really an experience on the cans. No more is the remix more evident than on the cover of the Tim Rose song “Boogie Boogie” where we gained prominent breaths and and a wah guitar line! What was a song I didn’t really care for in the original mix, but the Country mix has much more texture and kind of reminds me of “Digging in the Dirt” by Peter Gabriel.

Standout tracks for me have been “Watch Out For the Cannonball” with it’s compressed snare and keyboard patches, and “Oh Nathaniel.” “Oh Nathaniel” is the theme to a vampire story that sounds a lot like an outtake from late-period Buckingham-Nicks Fleetwood Mac. True Blood’s second season starts this month– they could use this song for the soundtrack– “drink their blood when they call on you…Rise up like the moon…” “Resurrection Blues” is a Nawlins funeral march of desperation where the narrator can’t seem to make it to heaven.

Country Hai East Cotton was released this week and is available in a couple formats from either the website of the record label the band formed called The Heaven and Earth Magic Recording Company, or from a number of brick-and-mortar stores– mostly on the coastal regions. The first format– and most desired frankly,  is the crazy-limited edition CD pressing seen in the picture above in all its glory. The limited-to-500 CD is encased in a color miniature gatefold cover which was illustrated by Nathaniel Russel and printed on 100% recycled cardstock. The CD is lovingly encased in a woven-fibre inner sleeve and the whole shebang is protected by a mylar sleeve. The picture above also shows the small gold-colored thankyou card that lists all of their intertube access and a haiku by Jaime De Angulo on the flipside.

Alternatively, you can download a 256Kbps version of the album in mp3’s for the price of a donation. Per the press-release from the band, “I realize that Country Hai East Cotton will be easily obtained for free on a host of torrent sites and blogs very soon, if it isn’t already. That’s OK. We appreciate that. But, at the risk of sounding totally romantic and/or naive, we’re hoping that those who have heard HGM and like what we do will choose to spend a little money on a disk or download directly from us.”

Indeed, this form of electronic sales where the consumer chooses what to pay has been attempted before successfully and not. Country Hai East Cotton is certainly one of my favorite releases this year and I can’t recommend enough that you, gentle reader, give this album a shot, and I think you’ll find that the band deserves your donation for this fantastic album.

Click Here to visit the Hiss Golden Messenger MySpace Page where you can hear tracks from Country Hai East Cotton.

Click Here to visit the Heaven & Earth Magic Recording Company to order your copy of Country Hai East Cotton.

Click Here to visit the blog page for Hiss Golden Messenger

Click Here to visit Hiss Golden Messenger Facebook Page

B-Sides in the Bins #15 – Cedar Rapids and Internet 9/11/07

I made a trip to CDWarehouse in Cedar Rapids on 9/11 specifically to pick up the new Joe Henry. I’ve also picked up some other titles from ‘Net…

Civilians – Joe Henry (CD Anti- 86890-2, 2007) ($13.99) Joe’s second release on Anti- is pretty much a continuation of the sound and style he established with 2003’s Tiny Voices.

“Oh Yeah” – Yello (12″ Mercury 884-930-1, 1985) ($0.50) This is why I love hitting CDWarehouse. John deliberately drops cool stuff in his cheap vinyl bin. Ever since I took a huge haul of early Eighties 12-inches from Goodwill a couple of years ago, I’ve been keeping an eye out for deals like this. MINT condition. It has the single version of the song plus a 5 minute “Indian Summer Music” remix and a 6:25 “Dance Mix.”

In the used vinyl bin there was a copy of Welcome to the Pleasuredome by Frankie Goes to Hollywood and another Yello title. If the FGTH title is still there next time I’m in, I’ll probably pick that one up. I still remember playing the “Relax” 12″ at home after I purchased it at Musicland in Dubuque and having Dad asking me why I was listening to that “shit.” A brother of a friend of mine bought the cassette of Pleasuredome and I copied it. I hadn’t heard anything like it at the time. That was the summer of Zang Tum Tum Records it seemed. Zang Tum Tum was the odd little label from the UK that had The Art of Noise, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, 808 State and Seal among other acts on it. There was kind of a mystery surrounding the label and its acts. I remember there were three or four versions of the “Relax” video– some of them not appropriate for Prime Time and I could catch them on Night Flight on USA on the weekends. Night Flight was how I heard about The Art of Noise whose “Close (to the Edit)” and “Beat Box (Diversion 1)” were also in constant rotation along with Yes’s “Owner of the Lonely Heart.” Apparently Madonna and Sean Penn used the AoN song “Moments in Love” as their wedding march. All of these songs and their albums were produced by former Buggle (“Video Killed the Radio Star”) Trevor Horn. AoN was effectively the house band for ZTT and backed FGTH and would later be the band for Seal’s first album.

Double Roses – The Court and Spark (CD Absolutely Kosher no catalog number, 2003) ($10) With the annouced split of the Court and Spark I figured I’d better pick up the titles I didn’t have. Double Roses is really more of an EP at nine tracks than a full album. It is a collection of some unreleased studio tracks as well as a couple of live ones. The packaging is hand-made and numbered. Mine is numbered 126 of 400. Along with the CD there is a URL which provides the actual liner notes. I should probably snag those pages and cache them in case the website goes down. Order this directly from Absolutely Kosher as it is the cheapest you will find this title. $10 included shipping!

Ventura Whites – The Court and Spark (CD Glitterhouse Records GRCD 504, 2000) ($13.80) This is the import release of the CD. Ventura Whites was distributed by Tumult in the US. Very OOP, unfortunately. Not really my favorite release from them. I think their sound matured quite a bit between this release and Bless You. Bought on Amazon.com from a seller.

Solitude – Volebeats (CD Safe House SH-2128-2) ($1.13) Exchanging e-mails with Dave from the 100’s got me looking at the Volebeats again. The 100’s cover “Annabel” by the Volebeats. The Volebeats are/were a band from Michigan who record a roots rock/country style. I had been doing some research on the Volebeats back when the movie The Shopgirl included one of their songs but never followed through to purchase anything. I seem to remember the Calexico/Friends of Dean Martinez-ish instrumental “Desert Song” being in some movie, too.

Westside Cabin EP #1 – Reminder (download Ropeadope Digital Release R509) ($7.99) Reminder is the solo project of Josh Abrams who lends his bass skills to Thrill Jockey alums like Town & Country, Prefuse 73 and was also on Sam Prekop’s solo record. I found out about this from Tortoise guitarist Jeff Parker’s MySpace page. Jeff lends his riffs to “Halfsies.” Jazzy, mellow, sample-based electronica. Good stuff and good price. You can either download this from Ropeadope or buy it from Reminder - West Side Cabin #1 - EP . The Ropeadope version is cheaper than iTunes and is DRM-free.

The Court & Spark Extinguished

Bye Bye!
Per their MySpace page announcements, San Francisco band The Court and Spark have announced they are at least for the time being breaking up. To quote their message:

“…seeing as how we’re all involved in different musical
projects, it seems best to retire the C&S name for a while. We’ve had a good
run and have had the good fortune to meet all kinds of wonderful souls as
we’ve stumbled down the road. Thank you one and all for everything you’ve
given us.”

The Court & Spark had a pretty good run releasing four critically praised alt-country/Americana albums and one EP since 1999. 2006’s Hearts album which was reviewed here was a slightly more experimental outing demonstrating the band’s desire to stretch its creative wings a bit. After a quick lap around the country in support of Hearts, the band returned to its Bay-area home and focused its time on more individual efforts with frontmen M.C. Taylor and Scott Hirsh working on their Hiss Golden Messenger project.

Currently Hiss Golden Messenger is playing local shows and focusing on releasing its first album. Be sure to check out their MySpace page to listen to tracks they have posted. It definately sounds like The Court and Spark, but with a more experimental bent. I’m really looking forward to hearing what comes out of this effort.

The Court & Spark will be playing their last show Friday, July 7th at Cafe Du Nord in San Francisco along with Hiss Golden Messenger and Kelley Stoltz. Doors are at 8:30PM for this 21 and over show. Admission is $12. A passing of the torch it seems.

The Court & Spark – Hearts (review)

I’ve been following the Court & Spark since I heard an interview segment on NPR back in 2001 around the time of their Bless You release. What I heard at the time was a logical progression from some of the other artists I had been listening to at the time. I was a big Neil Young fan, I liked Son Volt, the Jayhawks, Joe Henry, Jack Logan, and other artists who would unfortunately get lumped into the category of alt.country, or Americana. People love convenient labels, I guess.

Admittedly, the earler records from The Court & Spark (Ventura Whites, and to an extent Bless You) have many influences from the same place as other artists that share that category. Just take a look at the Byrds– were they country, or were they rock? Take a look at Neil Young– is he country, or is he rock, or folk for that matter? Is Tom Petty rock? He certainly can pull in some twang when desired. What about the Eagles? Even Fleetwood Mac with Lindsey Buckingham at the helm recorded a couple of songs that could be called country– check out “That’s Alright” from Mirage. A lot of Clapton’s output in the Seventies sure sounds like country (“Lay Down Sally,” “Promises”). The point here being that good bands and artists get great by stretching their boundaries. The more influences that an artist can draw from, the richer the work.

And, so it is with the Court & Spark’s new album Hearts (released May 2nd). Hearts is the sound of a band that is stretching its boundaries by diving a little more away from their rootsy or folksy sound and more towards a rock sound. In fact, in an interview with The San Francisco Chronicle, singer, lyricist and guitarist M.C. Taylor said that they were “being painted into a corner” and that Hearts is a reaction to that.

Hearts is an album that is unique and familiar both at the same time. It has the typical laid-back, mid-tempo feel that all of the Court & Spark records have. There is this underlying darkness that beckons, too. This is the first full-length album recorded by the band at their recording studio The Alabama Street Station. As is typical with bands who finally get their own space– they can spend time on the record without fear of racking up expensive studio time. This extra effort shows in the sometimes subtle, and sometimes not-so subtle sound textures used in the album. The band employs everything from toy pianos on the stomping “Your Mother Was the Lightning” to dulcimers and typewriters. Even with the sound effects on the tracks the album still has a consistent feel. The production values and layers of sound effects are not blips and bloops of electronica, but more classic studio type effects that you’d hear from Smile-period Beach Boys or the Beatles. The whole album sounds like it could have been recorded in 1971– that precarious hangover time after the end of the Summer of Love and the beginning of the next party that would be disco.

The record starts off with “Let’s Get High,” which does a great job of setting the tone for the rest of the record. A mellow, sexy affair with M.C. singing an invitation to “swim down, you’ve got beautiful fins.” This song reminds me of the best work of The The (what the hell happened to Matt Johnson anyway?). Lot’s of layered guitars and horns slathered over a sparce beat that firmly puts M.C.’s voice front and center. Most of this song sounds like it was processed through the spinning speaker of a Leslie. In fact, that effect is used all over the record.

The album transitions to the breezy “We Were All Uptown Rulers” which is included for your listening pleasure thanks to the permission of the band’s management. In typical fashion, it is nearly impossible to tell what this song is about. The only reference to “Uptown Rulers” I could find was a Meters album. The song seems sad and defeatist. Whomever this song is about, his other Uptown Ruler compatriots have been killed off, and he’s the last one. But, he’s standing his ground.

The accordion or melodeon along with the strings and whistling makes “Birmingham to Blackhorse Road We Wandered” sound distinctly Scottish folk. I have to say that M.C.’s lyrics, while obscure, do paint a picture. When he sings “Lay your diamond hand on me, lay your hands on me” I wonder if that means that the narrator’s love interest he “met at the change of the century” is married?

Hearts has four instrumental interludes spread throughout the album. They make for nice spacing between the tracks. The first one following “Birmingham” is “The Oyster Is A Wealthy Beast” takes advantage of bouncing strings under a solo lone violin. In the last 45 seconds it breaks down to the sounds of water lapping on the shore.

Clocking in at six minutes, the following track is the monumental centerpiece to the album, “Capaldi.” I can only assume that this is a tribute to the late Traffic member Jim Capaldi. It certainly sounds like a send-up of a Traffic song with its analog synth and arpeggiated guitar and bass guitar hook coated in fuzzy distortion.

“Capaldi” is followed by “A Milk White Flag”– the second of the four interludes. I notice that these tracks seem to fit together. They have a “music from another room” feel to them. Nice use of reverb. This is followed by “Berliners” which is a slow strumming ballad about what seems like a voyeuristic ghost pining for love of a living girl. Wandering tape noises under the guitars drive home the feeling of loss. We are greeted again by an instrumental called “Smoke Snigals” [s.i.c]. I guess appropriately titled considering the previous track begged for someone to “talk to me!”

When you listen to this with headphones you get to hear M.C. take a breath before starting the next track, “Mother Was the Lightning.” A slapping 2-step beat and tick-tock guitar propels this head-bobber. This song seems to be about a family doomed for disaster sung from the vantage point of a boyfriend. A universal theme, I think. The song winds out with toy piano and claps and Leslie tinged vocals.

“The High Life” starts out as slow waltz of a song that reminds me a bit of the classic “The Night Life.” Around 2:50 the song switches gears to a driving four-on-the-floor with layers of soaring guitars and keyboards that seems more like an early-Seventies progressive track by Yes. This is followed by the last of the instrumentals called “Gatesnakes.” This track is more of an exercise in layering sounds effects over a lone piano track reminding me a bit of Game Theory’s experimentation on Lolita Nation. After two minutes of that we move to the album closer called “The Ballad of Horselover Fat.” This is a spare vocals plus acoustic guitar that layers in other instruments as the song progresses to its chorus of “As a man I fade away.” Horselover Fat is the alter-ego of Sci-Fi writer Philip K. Dick that he used in one of his last novels VALIS, in 1981. I haven’t read this one, but I guess that it deals mostly with Dick’s search to understand God. A nice way to end this album, I feel.

In attempting to break the perception that they were a “country” act, the Court & Spark have recorded their most interesting and complete work to date. It’s time to catch the Spark of these high-heeled boys.

Download “We Were All Uptown Rulers”

Download a Live Version of “Capaldi”

Download a Live Version of “Your Mother was the Lightning”

Band photo by Peter Ellenby