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A brother who dotes on his sister is forced into a situation where he has to get her married to a ruffian with whom he is at loggerheads. Can their relationship survive? Director: Pandiraj Writers: Pandiraj (Dialogue), Pandiraj (Screenplay) Stars: Sivakarthikeyan, Bharathiraja, Soori

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Hiss Golden Messenger - Terms of Surrender Music Album Reviews

Working without his longtime collaborator Scott Hirsch, M.C. Taylor enlists guests Jenny Lewis and Aaron Dessner as he explores the heaviest questions and realizes there are no answers.

The phrase “terms of surrender” implies defeat, but surrender can mean also liberation. On his fourth album for Merge Records, Hiss Golden Messenger’s M.C. Taylor splits the difference between the two meanings of the phrase as he tries to make sense of his own increasingly complicated life. Working within his established roots-rock sound, he explores the heaviest questions—how to be an artist, a parent, a citizen—and realizes that there may be fewer and fewer answers as the years go by.

To do so, he enlists two big-name indie-rock guests: the National’s Aaron Dessner contributes guitar and piano, and Jenny Lewis sings backing vocals. But a quieter fact of Terms of Surrender is that the album has no involvement from Scott Hirsch. A longtime collaborator going back to pre-Hiss bands the Court & Spark and Ex Ignota, Hirsch has produced, engineered, and/or played on almost every Hiss Golden Messenger album. His unusual bass patterns helped lock the band into its distinct grooves; his production felt spacious without being sparse. Without him, an intangible element of Hiss’ “secret sauce” has disappeared.

Instead, Brad Cook—former Megafaun bassist and collaborator with acts like Bon Iver, Whitney, and Kevin Morby—handles both bass and production, and fills the frame with ill-fitting sounds as if over-compensating. The album isn’t a mess, per se, but it is cluttered, and it often feels like Cook should’ve adhered to Coco Chanel’s rule of removing one thing before leaving the house. There are just too many elements competing for space, and none of them seem to agree which is the star.

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Hiss Golden Messenger have dipped into dub textures before (2009’s “O Nathaniel,” 2012’s “Born on a Crescent Moon”) and they do so again on Surrender’s “Old Enough to Wonder Why (East Side—West Side).” But then tinny banjo plunks appear like gnats, disrupting the wide-open sense of space. Taylor’s voice, meanwhile, feels squished among layers of guitars, keys, and synths. At times, it’s difficult to make out what he’s singing—a shame, as Taylor has a knack for examining existential anxiety with honesty and empathy. On the sweeping opener “I Need a Teacher,” Taylor yearns for “beauty in the broken American moment.” With “Happy Birthday Baby,” a tender song written for his young daughter, he hopes she’ll think better of him than he does of himself.

But the arrangements of songs like “Down at the Uptown” and “Katy (You Don’t Have to Be Good Yet)” feel more in service to broad-strokes Dead-and-Dylan worship than to Taylor’s songwriting. A striking line like, “I’m a little bit lost and a whole lot of things you can’t hang with” gets lost in the anodyne folk-rock mix. Sometimes, Taylor’s lyrics seem to arrive from an entirely different record, one that’s better and more focused. His best songs put his ruminations on spirituality, family, loneliness, and humanity at the center, but here he sounds like the only thing he’s surrendered is his spotlight.


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