Tuesday, August 14, 2007

“Like a Haunting”: A Review of Patrick Porter’s Lisha Kill

(Camera Obscura Records, 2005, CAM071CD, www.cameraobscura.com.au)

Patrick Porter is a multifaceted artist in the purest sense, working odd jobs of various and mostly limited duration while he creates his novels, poems, music, and paintings (which often serve as the cover art for his records). Patrick’s work as a poet has garnered a great deal of attention (I reviewed his Nervous Halo a few years ago) and his music is selling very well these days (his Reverb Saved my Life, also available thru Camera Obscura, is a gem). He also has a CD out thru Asaurus Records (www.asaurus.org) called Skylan Mo. He recently traveled Europe in support of his music, producing a blog of his encounters and experiences on his website, www.nervoushalo.com, that was the kind of stripped down beautiful-language literature reminiscent of ole Jack Kerouac.

Patrick’s latest effort, Lisha Kill, recorded in Schenectady, New York in the summer of 2003, is at first hard to wrap your ears around, to get comfortable with—songs often begin or are accompanied by ambient sounds (birds, traffic, dishes being done), snippets of the overwritten, overacted films of the ‘40s (which are directly opposed to Porter’s far more subtle style), or odd/cheaply produced sounds from the second-hand, abandoned instruments he found in a pile of junk at a Salvation Army depot near his apartment, and they end abruptly and often right at the point when they are taking you inside. This is no doubt Porter’s strategy, and he uses it to great effect. All of the contradictory/paradoxical forces at work on the record—musically, vocally, lyrically, and in choice of produced and ambient sounds—invite multiple and attentive listens and put the spectator in the uncomfortable position of having to stop and really see instead of simply rolling up the window or stepping over the legs of the drunken bum between him and the theatre entrance.

There is a great deal he wants us to see. In reading other reviews and the press release from the record company, it seems every other song on the record has a tragic story or sobering anecdote attached—such is the nature of a James Joycean artist keenly tied to the everyday workings and personal tragedies of the place(s) where he chooses to reside. The same unsentimental reporting of daily events in his neighborhood that makes Porter’s poetry so powerful and ultimately beautiful is at work on the 13 tracks of Lisha Kill. A fellow reviewer, Luke Buckham, says “He’s able to haunt us, to gently rattle us out of the trance we often enter when confronted with the commonplace.” I couldn’t agree more. Patrick’s love of simplicity and self-deprecating, unassuming nature make him a trustworthy and capable spokesman for those Just Getting By. Who needs a voice given to their trials and quiet victories more than they?

And what a distinct and worth-a-moment-of-your-time voice he gives them—sharing the most dismal of events with the unapologetic truthfulness of Tool/Perfect Circle’s Maynard James Keenan, albeit with an unsure and understated vocal style more reminiscent of REM’s Michael Stipe. The musicianship is of high quality but Porter never seems interested in trying to prove it. Just the opposite. In songs such as “Free Kittens” and “End Badly” the guitar solos are so well rendered they bring the listener deeply into the song—and then Porter pulls the plug (literally?), leaving us with nothing but the chirping of birds, or a bit of film dialogue or the sounds of a Machine. On “Slow Torpedo” he begins with a cheap-sounding Casio drumbeat overlaid with exquisite guitar playing—Porter the virtuoso truly shining thru—and as a solid organ accompaniment joins in and swells the whole trip is suddenly ended with a mish-mash of drum sounds followed by Porter engaging in some apparently tongue-in-cheek philosophy (“think of it as a big list, from birth on one side to death on the other”). When in doubt, there are the words, sometimes getting autobiographical about writing (like in “Old Words”—“he tried to write a novel and failed” or the next track, “Window Seat”—“look up your own words in your own dictionaries”). In a track called “Mermaid,” he once again uses the Casio drumbeat, this time presaging the lyric “I quit/I quit/Pretentious bullshit.” This is the enigma that is Porter—any time he gets close to musical perfection he exits the plane and pulls the cord rather than risk wading into the waters of Pretentious Bullshit. As if to prove to us how serious he is, Porter adds an old Country song to the mix by resurrecting Bill D. Johnson’s 1957 effort “A Wound Time Can’t Erase,” which is enhanced by backing vocals by Amber Curtis and the sound of the evening dishes being done (the musical equivalent of a coffee stain on a Jackson Pollock piece—life goes on while the artist makes his art). This isn’t the current form of Country with New York–looking models in cowboy hats but the real deal nicely executed. All of this unpretentiousness may be a necessity of his role as Everyman—getting too high would obscure the essential street-level view and disrupt the true genius at work in Porter’s artistic world, which varies from front porches to basements and other makeshift studios in the downtrodden cities of which he writes. Places supplying rooms where, as he says in “End Badly”: “I can be a fucking drag.”

But he’s anything but. The first track, “Good People with Bad Credit,” begins with a mumbling, laughing Porter followed by his seemingly warming up his fingers on the acoustic, which is then joined by a beautifully rendered but quickly aborted guitar passage. Then the song begins…”Baby, Don’t know what to do, Don’t know if I’m going crazy”—which could possibly be the theme for the artist, the record, the town, the country, and the world.

The second track, “End Badly,” begins and ends with the chirping birds, bringing to mind the sparrows that presage the coming of George Stark in Stephen King’s The Dark Half, especially when a careful listen reveals the sound of a quiet but insistent machinery at work behind the birds. Together, they support an engagingly strummed guitar line and solid beat that set the musical tone for what is to come.

In reading liner notes from his past CDs and other Porter anecdotes, one detects a certain irreverence for the musical instruments he uses (as evidenced by the Lindsey Martin–produced photographs of Patrick in a ghoul’s mask kicking and throwing his guitar); they are not sacred items, but a means to an end, and in Porter’s case, they are often borrowed or as mentioned earlier, taken from abandoned piles of other people’s junk. He puts them all to good use while he has them—a few listens and you can easily detect where and how the “Casios, mandolins, toy pianos, accordion and…two-tiered Kimball organ” were used. Music history is full of stories of innovations in instrumentation and recording that have opened new doors of experimentation and expression for the most capable of musicians and Lisha Kill stands strongly among them.

I often think of Patrick’s music as a reluctant but necessary vehicle for his words, like Dylan, the best known and respected of the Poet-Guitarists. This is not to say that either of them are anything but capable and inventive musicians, but the words provide the core around which the layers of music and other auditory philosophies/commentaries wrap themselves—the metaphorical onion just waiting to be peeled. Haunting lines like “Old man what are you runnin’ ‘round here for?” and “Never bother father when he’s had enough of you” stay with you well after the CD is done.

The third track, “Hospital,” begins with the looped electro-voice of the self-serve checkout at the supermarket: “Please select your method of payment,” over and over, which links it to “Good People with Bad Credit” and renders the thought: If you are totally broke, method of payment is a ludicrous idea, especially if your credit is bad. Thematically, this song is to me the most complex and interesting—after the voice loop Patrick uses a lyric lifted from the Breton Fisherman’s Prayer: “Dear god, be good to me/The sea is so wide/And my boat is so small.” As the song progresses, with variations on the verse “Go to the hospital/Get me a specialist/Go to the hospital/tell them I’m feeling sick” (including one of my favorite turns of language on the record, “Get me a doctical”) there is the sound of sirens in the background, themselves sick, a seeming indication that the institution is as sick as the patient. There is then an interlude of cymbals and atonal, pseudo speed-metal guitar, leading the listener to wonder if perhaps the patient has died or perhaps succumbed. Perhaps the sedatives have finally kicked in. As the interlude ends, we are left with a brief and very clean acoustic segment before full distortion kicks in and the sedative is at full effect (it is, however, not to be taken as a cure).

Track four, “Lisha Kill,” the title song, refers to a dirty river in Schenectady, although I found out through a little research that it is also the name of a 112-acre sylvan sanctuary a few miles east of downtown Schenectady in a place called Niskayuna. I don’t know for sure but something tells me that Patrick knows full well about the dual meaning of Lisha Kill and that duality is the heart and soul of the artist and his art. No matter how bleak and dreary the landscape and the lives of Those Left Behind, sanctuary and salvation are only a few physical and mental miles away. During the song, we hear stronger sirens than in “Hospital” and also the sounds of bombs dropping—or perhaps they are Roman candles? In the end we are left with the sounds of what might be a reactor or large generator—more machinery linking the songs. Industrialization seems to have prevailed for the moment, but we are wiser now for the fact that music can mask the insistent drone of Modernity. It’s a comforting thought.

Track five, “Beak” (an immediate reminder of the birds of “End Badly”) begins with Patrick’s voice distorted to sound like a Christmas elf saying “Okay” six times in succession, followed by the lyrics: “So is it for me/or is it for you/I’m in it for me/you’re in it for you” sung numerous times, followed by the answer/confession: “I’m in it for me” repeated over and over. As the music fades we hear a woman’s voice “ooh-ing” the melody line of the “New day dawning/Like a haunting” segment of “Good People with Bad Credit.” Porter’s themes are never far away, and they are slowly revealed as the CD progresses into track eight: “Free kittens,” expressing thoughts of religion, death, Heaven and the devil but ultimately: “As my future fades from view/I thought about you.” This theme of impending death continues with track nine, “Alarm Clock Song” (a wake-up call?), which uses a chimes effect on the Kimball organ that is always there, marching insistently on like time, no matter how many drums, guitars and other, more lightly rendered organ sounds Patrick lays on top of it, and that seems to be the point as he sings: “Cancer, cancer, cancer/I know I’ve got cancer/If I don’t I’m scared anyway.”

Track 11, “Slow Torpedo,” seems to be the symbol key to the whole CD. After the aborted musical opening and tongue-in-cheek philosophizing mentioned earlier, Porter is in fine form, his crisp guitar playing matching and giving strength and confidence to the most clearly rendered vocal lines on the record. Then, as he sings the final line, “Let’s make a getaway,” the song is superceded by an extended piece of dialogue from an unnamed film that begins with a reply to the last lyric: “Forget it, forget it.” The three characters then mention almost all of the underlying themes at work in the 13 songs: insanity, trying to make a getaway, hidden identity (the mask Porter wears on the CD’s art), death, the hospital, strangers, and fighting against Time.

The CD concludes with “Toppy,” a sort of religious exploration that brings to mind the search for truth made by the likes of Jack Kerouac and following the tradition of such album closers as Jim Morrison’s American Prayer line: “Thank you Lord for the white, blind light” and U2’s “MLK,” which ends Unforgettable Fire (“Sleep/Sleep tonight/And may your dreams/Be realized”). Porter’s own lyrics are equally spiritual and profound:

“This is a morning prayer
This is a soul
This is the one time I’m not in control.”

Good words for ending well.

No comments: