Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Songs You Can Sing To (a Patrick Porter redux)—A review of Porter’s Die Wandaland

It’s no secret that this 28-year-old musician, poet, and novelist is a favorite at New Mystics.
Patrick Porter’s musical and literary talents have grown steadily over the years, from the time 13
years ago when he was playing drums in his father’s band to his latest works (aside from this
review, we have several of Patrick’s poems on the site this month, as well as a bio and my review
of his first poetry book, Nervous Halo).

For the past several years he’s given in to his wanderlust, splitting time between the environs of
Denver, Colorado and those of New York City, the journeys always providing a wealth of new
material about the people and places Porter sees. His three previous CDs—Lisha Kill, Skylan Mo,
and Maybe Waltz, are what he calls the “NY Trilogy.” (You can read my comprehensive review of
Lisha Kill at http://www.newmystics.com/New%20Mystics%20Music%20Lisha%20Kill.htm. It
contains a lot of background/biographical information in addition to thoughts on all the tracks).

My interest in Porter’s artistic and professional progress stems from his being a Renaissance
man; one quickly coming of age on both the published page and in the recording studio. He’s
Rush’s New World Man, going between the two worlds of the cityscape and the outlands, the
factory and farm—his successes are ours, and his failures as well.

Portland, Oregon’s Greyday Records (www.greydayrecords.com) put out Die Wandaland, which
was recorded in relative isolation outside Denver, with fancy mikes like those used on the
Budweiser frog commercials; a grand piano; his old Casios; and multilayered recording
techniques. This is not so much a sea change in Porter’s recording style as it is a huge upgrade
in technology and Possibilities. He took full advantage and pushed the envelope in many ways,
most notably perhaps in the cryptic line in his press package: “a black and white TV set plays the
drums.”

We can only guess what he means.

Die Wandaland shows a breadth of influence and subject matter unmatched by any of Porter’s
previous discs, and even extends into the realm of his outward advice to other people. It seems
as though his coming of age process is allowing him to open up and embrace life more than he
has in the past.

The liner notes sum all of this new intention up in their last word: “Repent.”

The cover design and other artwork, with their multiple photos of one blue and one pink duck in
various postures and stages of destruction, neatly convey the layers and layers of symbolism at
play in the songs.

“Lite Sleeper” begins the album with the familiar tones of one of Porter’s beat up old Casios,
slowing down to a drag—his way of continually reminding us of Time. The Casio underbeat stays
semi-consciously insistent the whole way thru. “Lite Sleeper” features multilayered harmonics and
unaborted guitar work—a big deal given Porter’s past practice of killing a solo half way thru.
There is a sense of committal to the role of virtuoso musician on this disc that has been absent in
the past...Porter seems less shy about being so damned good. He’s growing into his artistic suit
of clothes. When the hand clapping begins the song is dancing on the jagged edge of Pop but
never quite gets there—Porter’s down to earth sensibilities won’t let it. We get a little bit of Porter-
speak with an “Oh yeah” that seems to be a form of peacemaking with the vibe of his new, fuller
approach to his music.

It’s a portent of things to come.

“Sears Tower,” with its solid acoustic structure and interesting backing effects and percussion
also benefits from a nice lyric hook: “you know you’re half way home.” There is some strong
imagery at work here, with the “up the elevator, then down again” line being a subtle assertion
that such things are the sum worth of a monument like the Tower and, by extension, some
people’s lives. There is an interesting voice recording at the end about someone trying to steal his
camera before the acoustic finish, complete with a barely there police siren.

While looking over the CD, one of my musician friends noticed the track “Esso Station” and asked
me “They still have those?” It’s a nice moment in time—a comment on Porter’s extensive
Greyhound criss-crosses round the country—often the subject matter of both his songs and his
novels and poems—his East-West dance, trying to heal the dichotomy in the best traditions of the
gone angel Kerouac. [Having spoken to him about this, the geography is well extended—he was
actually in London at the time he saw the sign, and if you listen to the lyrics, all the clues are
there.] Is it that they can’t commit or is it the other way round? The song is supported by his
signature drumming, reminiscent of some of his earliest recordings. Foreboding guitar and
keyboards throw up images of Donald Pleasance in his bad toupee seducing the Bee Gees with
women, food, drink, and drugs in Sgt. Pepper’s. The tonality and exactness of his playing is
particularly crisp and clean, and harmonics and keyboard effects make this song notably
atmospheric and grim.

“Reality Row” opens with a multilingual sampling from Radio and TV containing a commentary on
God and Aliens. The song, as evoked in the opening lyric: “Prayer to 3 am gods,” starts out as a
spiritual meditation with a Toad the Wet Sprocket solemnity that works well, complete with
layered guitars. The second verse adds a tinkling, discordant piano, giving the meditation an
unsettled feel—where I think he really wants us. We get more Porter-speak—“from New York City
to Albany Arms” as the structure transitions into an extended instrumental section and a further
shift as it moves from meditation to accusation: “Cause I know what you represent.” It all ends
with Porter’s voice staggered on two tracks—“I saw this thing on the Church today. It’s better to
forgive and forget than to hate and remember,” conjuring up the familiar image of those clever
little puns in black letters on the white signboard of the local Christian churches that try to draw
the faithful (and faithless) in.

There are two songs on Die Wandaland that deal specifically with death, an interest of Porter’s
that reminds me of the Beat poet Gregory Corso. “Bond Funeral Home” has an opening riff like
U2’s “In God’s Country,” although it quickly progresses into something more complex, including
the falling bomb/rocket effect from Lisha Kill. The song examines the ramifications of the
wanderlust that seems to govern his life. “Afraid to Die” opens with a sampling of what sounds
like a flight simulator game for the computer—we hear warning bells and a voice: “Don’t think!
Wind shear! Wind shear! Wind shear!” It is the requisite Porter death reflection, and when he says
“I know you’ve heard this before,” although he is talking about Romance, he seems to be
acknowledging his preoccupation with sickness and death as well.

The next two tracks on the CD are also the most different. “Dealin’ Doug” is just an acoustic
guitar, slow, insistent strumming, with multilayered vocals whereas “Hey Lindsey” provides the
opposite end of the spectrum—I thought it was the most complex and interesting song on the
disc, with its off-rhythm guitar intro, bongos, a cappella “Hallelujah!” and haunting piano lines. The
guitar interlude offers brisk arpeggios and a variety of styles, including a pseudo-flamenco. The
song is also interesting in terms of its lyrics, which are a series of flat out statements
uncharacteristic of Porter’s more self-reflective approach. The following are the most
demonstrative:

“I don’t know what to tell you...I can’t change the way things are about to go.”

“I don’t know what the hell you expect.”

“You should never try to change the things you should just accept.” (This reads to me like a less
sappy version of the Serenity Prayer.)

While I am talking lyrics, I think this might be the first time that the word lachrymose has ever
been used in a pop-rock song...

“Hayseed Highway” gives us our first taste of Porter blues, with deep bass hooks, slide guitar—
the whole nine. It’s no surprise that some of his best lyric work shines forth in this framework, with
such phrases as “Will they grind my bones into nutmeg?” and “Woe is me and woe is they” really
jumping out. He also makes good use of the repetitive Blues element in lines like “It’ll never
change, it’ll never change” and “It’s hard to escape, it’s hard to escape.” The song transitions
toward the end into the repetition of the lines “There’s always Maybe/There’s always Bailey”,
which is ominous given that Porter’s home base is Bailey, Colorado, and the evocation of its
name seems anything but pleasant. You may have heard of Bailey recently—it was the site of an
attack on several young girls by a guy who had been living in his car—he sexually assaulted 4 of
the girls before killing one of them and then himself. The song continues to grow more insistent
and musically complicated and layered until it collapses on itself like an old tarpaper shack.

The last song, “Made of Stone,” feels like an autobiographical confession of a depth notable even
for Porter, who has never shied away from turning the mirror on himself. Lyric lines like “flocked
together, all landlocked birds” bring to mind the literary plight of James Joyce, and his classical
models—Icarus and Dedalus. There is a need to escape from not only place and time but
circumstance. The song features lyrically strong word play and content—it’s true poetry (“there’s
a father and a daughter/which one’s closer, which ones farther?”) and when he sings “It’s not my
fault,” you want to believe him, even if you can’t. The cymbal and snare are haunting and
atmospheric, and in the end, it just ends, abruptly, reminding us that the changes in Porter’s
writing for this disc are far from permanent, the growth not locked in; that he can, on a whim,
leave us hanging, waiting for more.

And so we wait, while he writes and wanders, and writes some more.

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