Oh, let me be the one I want," Durham's Mike Taylor moans early on Haw, Hiss Golden Messenger's 2013 breakthrough. Acoustics pulse and electrics gnarl as Taylor continues, "Oh, let me love the one I want." He laments that "creatures with forked tongues," or prejudiced people convinced that salvation can only be reckoned in one way, hinder his quest for peace. Such desperation and frustration have long been central to Taylor's songs. There have been moments of hope and hard-won elation, sure, but by and large, Hiss Golden Messenger has roosted in the shadows—where angels enslave the Christian dead, where the "serpent is kind compared to man."
On last year's Lateness of Dancers, however, Taylor let in some light. A married father of two and newly signed to Merge Records, Taylor suddenly made music that loped and sparkled. The pressures of faith and family remained heavy, but Taylor at last agreed to the effort: "The more it hurts/The more you think you can stand a little pain."
The new three-track EP, Southern Grammar, offers a quick compendium of this expanded emotional range. The title track is a euphoric live rendition of one of Lateness' trademark cuts. While the studio version muddied the song's perky riffs with distortion, this take—cut at Philadelphia's WXPN radio station—bolsters jaunty guitars with brass and a call-and-response chorus. Harmonies flash Taylor's words as though in neon lights. "Eat a peach or let it go," he grins, making deep-held Southern prejudices seem as arbitrary as favoring peaches over apples.
But the ecstasy evaporates during two leftover studio cuts. "He Wrote the Book" is a grave if tender testament to belief strengthened by ceaseless questioning. Piano stakes out a steady march, and horns blow satisfied but not celebratory themes. "When the roll is called," Taylor sings, "I'm going to walk right up/And shake my savior's hand."
Ragged strums, supple slides and glistening organs cushion Taylor for "Brother, Do You Know the Road?" He catalogs obstacles on the path to enlightenment, but when he repeats the title's question, his backers faithfully answer, "Yes, my brother, I know the road."