Haw is the name of a river, a modest tributary of the Cape Fear, flowing rocky and swift through 110 miles of Piedmont North Carolina, wending Southeasterly past abandoned and repurposed textile mills, rickety hippie homesteads, and red-clay farmland fringed with pine forests. Green corn in the fields/River running like a wheel. Haw is also one of a few names for a small Siouan tribe that once resided in the eponymous river's valley and may have alternately known themselves as the Saxapahaw or Sissipahaw. After battling British settlers in the bloody Yamasee War of 1715-17, the Haw disappear from the colonial historical record. Their river remains, rolling on.
Haw, herein, is an album of eleven songs about family, faith, and an ill-prophesied future, an artifact almost as archaic, lovely and seldom heard today as directional commands for beasts of burden. M.C. Taylor, who wrote these songs, once lived hard by the Haw with his wife Abigail and their son Elijah – "Well I come from the bottom of the river Haw," he sings – but he doesn't live there anymore. Having followed the slipstream to the relative bustle of nearby Durham, North Carolina, he composed a clutch of tunes that conjure the half-remembered dreams of peace promised by our pasts.
Haw proposes a manifestly mature sense of anxiety and acute but unspectacular workaday pain, mapping a spiritual inscape pricklier and more unknowable than the places explored on Poor Moon (2011), the previous Hiss Golden Messenger record of all new material. Sonically, the arrangements – by turns lush with strings and saxophones and as kitchen-table direct as Bad Debt (2010) – belie the compositions' Biblical claws with a longing for pastoral comfort, the ease of fellowship, and more minutes than they can contain.
Taylor's writing and singing here achieve a tenebrous clarity, invoking – and occasionally challenging – a intermingling cast of prophetic characters both sacred and profane: Daniel, Elijah, the Apostles, and the Son of Man, sure, but also the Peacock Fiddle Band, Mississippi John Hurt, and by implication, Lew Welch, Waylon Jennings, Michael Hurley, and Jefferson Currie II. And more than ever before, the supporting players of Hiss Golden Messenger feature as tellers of the tale. Each episode earns a meticulously turned ensemble statement. Lyrically and musically multifarious and freshly urgent, Haw represents Hiss Golden Messenger's most ambitious and challenging work yet.