Last weekend, two Triangle bands came back from long cross-country tours in support of new records. Both were exhausted and grateful, clearly happy to be home at last. Mandolin Orange kicked off its sold-out four-show victory lap around the Triangle Friday night at the Haw River Ballroom, while Hiss Golden Messenger held court in an at-capacity Cat's Cradle the following evening.
In the past seven or so years, both bands have grown from meager upstarts playing for crowds of a dozen people into acts that command strong headlining gigs at home and abroad. They've signed respectable record deals with local heavy hitters—Mandolin Orange with Yep Roc, Hiss Golden Messenger with Merge—and have upgraded from small spaces like Nightlight and Local 506 to some of the area's best-regarded rooms.
Curiously, though, their audiences have never seemed to overlap much, even though they share core folk ideologies and a bevy of influences—and, on a few occasions, even personnel. While Mandolin Orange made early appeals to followers of straightforward folk and bluegrass, Hiss Golden Messenger attracted Deadheads and devotees of music that exists between blurred lines of genre. But as Mandolin Orange got sharper and Hiss Golden Messenger mellowed out, two bands that always seemed like they should overlap more finally do.
Before last Saturday night, the most recent show Hiss Golden Messenger had played in the Triangle was almost exactly a year ago, when M.C. Taylor and his band premiered the songs that would become this October's Merge LP, with photography by William Gedney, as a multimedia commission from Duke Performances. Heart Like a Levee is Taylor's most polished record yet. The tense, existentially anxious undercurrent that colored Bad Debt, Poor Moon, and Haw has all but evaporated into full-on folk-rock. That's not to say Heart Like a Levee is all sunshine and rainbows—"Do you hate me, honey, as much as I hate myself?" Taylor sings on the title track—but the padding of the big instrumental arrangements often dulls Taylor's ruminations.
Still, in one instance, Taylor makes a surprising return to form. On "Like a Mirror Loves a Hammer," he circles back around to the earliest, boogie-heavy version of Hiss Golden Messenger; if the song feels out of place on Heart Like a Levee, it feels right at home in the Hiss back catalog (see the excellent Country Hai East Cotton or Root Work, from 2009 and 2010, for more). Ultimately, though, it seems like Taylor is aiming to keep Hiss on its more recent path of even-tempered, genteel jams, even if it pulls his music back from the edges that first made it so compelling.
Meanwhile, Mandolin Orange, the brainchild of Emily Frantz and Andrew Marlin, has settled into its own corner as purveyors of easygoing, well-rounded tunes. On its first EP and debut record, 2010's Quiet Little Room, the band came off as earnest and eager, if a little unsteady. But between 2010 and 2012, they buckled down and issued the stunning double album Haste Make/Hard Hearted Stranger as a follow-up. Last year's conservative Such Jubilee felt like a lateral move from 2013's elegant This Side of Jordan, but this year's Blindfaller finds the band embracing maturity. It's a solid collection that feels at once confident and comfortable throughout. And as Marlin and Frantz have continued to discover and develop their voices as writers and performers, the duo's songwriting has only grown stronger.
As a coed duo with acoustic guitars, the pair has long garnered comparisons to Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings. It's a flattering juxtaposition, to be sure, but where Welch and Rawlings revel in hard times and ghostly notes, Frantz and Marlin find sweetness even in mournful moments. And even in a full band iteration that includes pedal steel and mild percussion, as it did in Saxapahaw, the instrumental means justify each song's tender emotional ends. Frantz and Marlin have figured out their skill sets and continue to hone them, picking up new ears along the way.
It's a strange delight to think back on the first time you saw a band and examine big-picture changes and minute details as an outsider. Paths cross and diverge, or, in the case of Hiss Golden Messenger and Mandolin Orange, even seem to run parallel. Both appear bound for even bigger rooms than the ones they've already filled at home. And who knows, maybe someday they'll split a bill at last.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The Twain Shall Meet."