A new Hiss album is always an occasion for joy. The pre-release singles from this heightened my anticipation, and notwithstanding my objection to that particular method of marketing, I had a feeling I was going to like this even more than their previous studio outing, Terms of Surrender, which was released in 2019. That set was intense, released at the height of Tr**pism, and was followed by two live sets released in 2020, both to raise money for the Durham, NC, public school system.
I wondered if we’d get a different tone from this one, whether one of hope, exhaustion, or deeper reflection. I suppose all of that is true. In spite of The Guardian describing this as “Dylanish” (🙄), I’d say your closest analogue to this is going to be early 70s soul. If you think of The Staples Singers in 1971 or 1972, or Curtis Mayfield, that’s your sound. Gentle Pops-style guitar, bit of Hammond organ, gospel style backing vocals, solid groove. Check out “It Will If We Let It” (above) and you’ll see what I mean. But, sure, Guardian, there’s a harmonica on one of the tracks. MC Taylor even quotes “People Get Ready” on “Hardlytown”:
People, get ready
There’s a big ship coming
I felt the fire
Now it’s down among us
I’ve been a liar
I want to get honest
“Way Back in the Way Back,” the opening number – starts as dry as a home demo, a vocal, a strummed guitar, a hint of electric piano. And gradually, here they come, the personnel. I wish I could tell you who’s doing what, but there are no sleeve notes on Apple Music, which is a bit shit. I was able to glean this from Indyweek:
He was joined by an impressive roster of collaborators, including Griffin and Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, Zach Williams of The Lone Bellow, Nashville guitar great Buddy Miller, and producer/musician Josh Kaufman of Bonny Light Horseman.
There were too many pre-released tracks (4 out of the 11 here, which is quite a chunk of the 39 minute run time), and they were all good, which I suppose shows a level of confidence in the rest of the material. The closing track, “Sanctuary”, was released so long ago that it already feels like a different era. It came out in January, at the height of, you know, and whoever thought we’d get to this moment, which feels calmer and even slightly hopeful, with vaccines being rolled out and a vaguely competent US administration, and Mr Hopeless actually resigning. But it’s so great to hear “Sanctuary” here, after the rest of this lovely, soulful album, it starts up and its groove still takes you over.
Get used to the bad news
It’s all part of the show, child
Handsome Johnny had to go, child
What did you feel, brother?
Oh, there’s something you should know now
Little things that’ll cut you down
And the lightning strikes the poorhouse
The rich man cries like a crocodile
Quietly Blowing It has been mastered Alan Jackson style, quieter than your bombastic modern music, which allows you to turn it up at home and experience the true dynamics of the music, without losing the subtleties. “Painting Houses”, for example, with its jazzy saxophone, twiddly mandolin, and hints of BVs.
Needless to say, you won’t hear anything better this year.