If you paid attention to San Francisco’s indie-rock scene in the early 2000s, you probably know The Court and Spark, the twangy ensemble that borrowed its name from Joni Mitchell’s landmark 1974 song and LP. The Court and Spark released a series of polished Americana records between 1999 and 2006, then disbanded, giving way to a spiritually kindred group called Hiss Golden Messenger that includes The Court and Spark’s M.C. Taylor and Scott Hirsch.
Listen to Hiss Golden Messenger’s 2009 debut, Country Hai East Cotton, and you’ll find it sounds a lot like The Court and Spark. Actually, so do all the band’s records, with their deeply Southern soul and meditative simmer. But Hiss Golden Messenger has gotten more attention than Taylor and Hirsch’s old outfit, and I can only guess why. Is it because the singles sound meatier? Hooks stickier? Or is it the forces at work in the background — like Merge Records, the weighty indie that released the band’s phenomenal fifth LP, Lateness of Dancers, last year?
Whatever its cause, the notice seems earned for a gifted band that works hard to do what it loves: As I write this, Hiss Golden Messenger is in Berlin, en route to Scandinavia, then back to the States to play a string of dates through the South and Midwest. And three weeks ago the group was here in D.C., on the edge of a snowstorm, hauling a mountain of gear into WAMU’s studio before it blew our hair back with two tremendous live performances.
For the quintet’s Bandwidth session, it played a jaunty take on “Blue Country Mystic” — one of Taylor’s best songs about fatherhood, originally released on Poor Moon — and “He Wrote the Book,” which officially arrived this year on the Southern Grammar EP. The band played both songs with more force than may be obvious in our videos — I’m told the drums bled through three studio doors and worked their way into a DJ’s live show (sorry!) — but the skill and heart that went into both songs is impossible to overlook.
Watch Hiss Golden Messenger play “He Wrote the Book,” above, and “Blue Country Mystic,” below. Bandwidth recorded both live at WAMU on a snowy January afternoon, hours before the band took the stage for a second night at 9:30 Club.
Photos by Rhiannon Newman for WAMU’s Bandwidth