howtorobabankWilly Porter – How to Rob a Bank (2009, Weasel Records)
purchase this album (Amazon)

In the fall of 1995, I was just getting my life back in order after a horrific breakup that had driven me into self-imposed exile on a friend’s farm, and then wandering halfway across the country with my best friend in tow. I was preoccupied with healing, in other words — and in the perfect emotional state for making Willy Porter’s musical acquaintance through his medium-sized AAA hit, “Angry Words”:

I have cursed your name a thousand times or more
Your photograph lies deep at the bottom of my drawer
But when i looked at it this morning
I had no angry words to say
No angry words to say

Four years later, I was busy digging through the wreckage of another nasty breakup, and along came Porter’s Falling Forward — with another track that spoke directly to how I was feeling, the haunting ballad “Infinity”:

Hey, it’s been two years now
Since the wind in your words made my heart falter
Since I fell down
Hey, I’m still drowning
Up to my neck in a sea of might-have-beens

…Hey, do you remember loving me?
Loving like cold blue electricity
We were plugging into infinity

I loved you when
You cried out to heal
It makes me sick
How your smiling face conceals
All that I know is real

Needless to say, Porter earned my trust a long time ago, and I look forward to each of his new releases like a long-overdue visit from an old friend. I obviously don’t have a lot of company in this regard — since 1995, he’s moved from Private Music to Six Degrees, then finally to his own self-run imprint, Weasel Records — but he’s acquired enough of a cult following to tour and record consistently; his latest studio album, How to Rob a Bank, is his sixth (not counting 2003’s High Wire Live) and first since 2006’s Available Light. He’s done this partly by virtue of a friendly, soulful voice that perfectly matches his deceptively simple, acoustic guitar-led arrangements, and partly because of his stunning dexterity with the guitar. Loosely speaking, most musicians are either songwriters or instrumentalists, and the list of artists who can rip your heart out with a song and dazzle you with how well they play is very short. Willy Porter is on that list.

His songs don’t touch my emotional third rail the way they used to, but given the way I felt when I first heard “Angry Words” and “Infinity,” that’s probably a good thing — and life as his own label boss agrees with Porter, as How to Rob a Bank continues ambling down the laid-back path he set out on with Available Light, adding a few instrumental wrinkles (sitar here, female backing vocals there) and setting them to some of the best lyrics he’s ever recorded. As with much of Porter’s stuff, these songs can fool you with their lack of flash; if you aren’t paying attention, they can slip past you without making much of an impact. But close listening is rewarded. Read the opening lines from the leadoff track, “Learning the Language”:

I’m a mother watching her daughter
Throwing her bouquet
Knowing that the moment is really all that you get
I’m the drunk across the table, remembering the chapters he’d like to forget

Porter has always excelled at capturing snapshots of ordinary lives and framing them in a universal context, and he does that here, moving from the eloquently composed vignettes of the verses into the chorus: “I’m learning the language of letting go / Pain comes so quick, and wisdom comes so slow.”

“Learning the Language” is a stellar song, one that perfectly encapsulates the loping gait and unassuming depth of Porter’s music; happily, the rest of Bank lives up to its example, from rootsy midtempo numbers like “Colored Lights” and “Wide Open Mind” to sweet ballads like “The Lemon Tree” and “Barefoot Reel.” Porter even makes room for a little Randy Newman-style topical commentary with the title track (download):

I’ll get some decent business suits and a bogus business plan
Become well-versed in the etiquette of Wall Street Disneyland
Hit the country clubs eating peanuts and drinking Scotch
I’ll talk the recent trends and fart into a velvet couch
That’s how you rob a bank

…Then I’ll cry to Congress that I just can’t survive
After giving loans to folks for homes they can’t afford to buy
And building useless cars that no one wants to buy
Then I’ll threaten massive layoffs, just like blackmail in disguise
That’s how you rob a bank

It won’t sell a million copies, but it’s another solid entry in a discography full of them, and one of the smarter, more durable albums of grown-up music we’re likely to get this year. If you haven’t joined the cult of Willy Porter yet, now’s as good a time as any to jump in.