by Jordan Green
Mike Taylor, a formally trained folklorist who performs under the moniker Hiss Golden Messenger, and William Tyler, formerly of the Silver Jews and Lambchop, are artists with big ideas who comfortably work in minimalist contexts.
The intimacy afforded by the auditorium at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, where the two performed the 10th installment of the Crossroads concert series on July 26, provided an optimal setting for them to explore that side of their artistry.
Both make music that lends itself to cogent introspection in different ways, Tyler with soundscapes spun from instrumental guitar playing, and Taylor with anecdotes and personal reflections that set up the rich lyrical detail of his songs.
Opening the concert at SECCA last weekend, Tyler offered two songs that marked the polarities of his musical interests.
Inspired by a visit to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, “Terrace of the Leopard King” displayed slashing chording followed by a cascading flurry of notes rooted in folk and Eastern music.
“Missionary Ridge” invoked a journey much closer to home — a drive through the Appalachian mountains. Laden with churchy overtones, Tyler’s fingerpicking was punctuated with gospel hallelujahs. The song opened with the feeling of a lonely road and progressed to a resolution of gratitude and reassurance.
Many of Tyler’s songs, all instrumental, have a travelogue feel. “Cadillac Desert,” which takes its name from a 1986 book about water policy, might suggest a westward road trip from the Mississippi Delta into the Ozarks with Lake Eufala in Oklahoma emerging in the afterglow of a sudden thunderstorm.
For “Cadillac Desert” Tyler switched to electric guitar, allowing him to use multi-tracking to build and break down melodic patterns. At one point he applied a motorized brush with a rotating head to the strings to get a buzzing sound, and added a pastel overlay of tremolo on top of the song’s note progressions.
William Tyler’s stage banter was inspired by the fruits of a voracious reading habit; Going Clear, a 538-page exploration of L. Ron Hubbard and scientology, provides the title and inspiration for another song. Meanwhile, Mike Taylor set up several songs with wide-ranging anecdotes — the discovery that his parents smoked pot during his California childhood, a capsule history of a psychedelic rock band in Fayetteville called Lumbee that put out an album called Overdose in the early ’70s, an affectionate tribute to ecology writer Wendell Berry and reflections on parenthood among them.
Armed only with an acoustic guitar, Taylor as a solo performer is an understated player prone to quiet phrasing that draws inflection from country blues and old-time traditions. His weathered voice bears some resemblance to latter-day Bob Dylan. The emotional nakedness of his conversational lyrics about topics such as family worries and stresses, coupled with plaintive vocals, suggests Greg Brown, the folk-bard of Iowa.
What Taylor is doing musically is not exactly new, but sounds refreshing probably because it avoids the pitfall of trying to be a step ahead of the cultural curve.
He sang playfully on numbers like “Blue Country Mystic” (“Now, you tell me you were as wild as I ever was”) and with intense grief on “Sufferer (Love My Conqueror),” which he dedicated to his late friend, Jason Molina of Magnolia Electric Co. (“Who knew it would be the last time I saw your face, saw your face”).
Ultimately each artist is really reaching for the truest, most concise statement on the fleeting quality of what it means to be alive, attempting to inscribe some brief document worth remembering before it’s gone. Whether Taylor’s music is understood to be traditional or forward-looking doesn’t matter so much; being alive and attempting to capture the measure of it is enough.
William Tyler joined his friend Mike Taylor for the last three songs of his set: Jamming with spare elegance on the new “Saturday’s Song” from the forthcoming Lateness of Dancers due from Merge Records in September, adding bluesy, atmospheric guitar to “Smoke Rings,” and contributing wild, untamed tremolo to “Red Rose Nantahala.”
In addition to capturing life as it is, Taylor pointed with restlessness and yearning towards what it might be.
“Well, let me be the one I want,” he sang. “Yes, let me love the one I want/ All the creatures with their forked tongues/ Won’t let me be the one I want.”