Though he’s easily one of my favorite artists, I’ve held off on writing a Willy Porter Guide for awhile now; his output just doesn’t seem large enough to warrant the treatment. But heck, if Davids Baerwald and Mead can get their own Guides, then Porter deserves one too.
If you’re going into this without ever having heard Porter’s music, I envy you — there’s probably nobody else who jumps so fluidly between earthy blues, three-minute pop, and flat-out instrumental virtuosity, and there’s nothing like the thrill of discovery. His guitar playing draws a fair number of Kottke, Legg, and Hedges comparisons, and those are fair enough, but Porter’s songs typically have more of a pop anchor than anything by those three. This is for better or worse; if you’re looking for someone who will continually amaze you with his technical skill, Willy Porter probably isn’t that guy (though he will occasionally make your jaw drop:but more on that later).
If, on the other hand, you’re looking for an emerging tunesmith, strong (and occasionally even brilliant) lyricist, and a voice like a warm blanket, you’ve got pleasant surprises in store.
The Trees Have Soul (1990)
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Debut albums by career artists generally fall into two camps: There are those that are so brilliant, the artist in question spends the rest of his or her career toiling in its shadow, and there are those that present the artist in a formative light, providing hints at and glimpses of what’s to come without setting the bar too high. The Trees Have Soul, released independently by Porter in 1990, is the latter.
Sometimes these debut albums are quaint, or a little embarrassing — like high school yearbook photos. Soul is neither of these, but then, neither is it as consistent or enjoyable as his later work. Porter came to the guitar from the viola — after hearing, yes, Kottke’s 6 & 12 String Guitar — and perhaps this contributes to the album’s neither-fish-nor-fowl makeup. It’s sort of jammy, sort of poppy, and there’s definitely some serious instrumental skill on display:but none of these elements are strong enough to support the record as a whole. Arguably the most entertaining moments surface during the two instrumentals, “Zak’s Tale Part I: Zak at Home” and “Zak’s Tale Part II: Zak at the Bar” (download).
It isn’t that the songs are bad. They just aren’t truly representative of Porter’s talent. Songs like “Moonbeam” and “Undertow” are engaging enough, but they don’t suggest that he’d soon (or ever) be more than a local legend. Only on the title track (download) does the listener really get an idea of everything Porter wants to do — and, given that he’s doing it all in one eight-and-a-half minute song, the results are a little unwieldy. It’s folk prog, basically. But don’t let that stop you.
Dog Eared Dream (1994)
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The coffee maker that you gave me
Well, it finally broke down
It up and died this morning
With a groaning sound
All these ghosts I have driven out
Driven them from my house
It’s a simple life I lead
Still got a lot to learn about
Yeah, but I’m finally getting over
Yes, I’m finally getting over
The sad part of yesterday
No angry words to say
Even at four years in the making, Dog Eared Dream represents a notably significant evolution for a second album. The above lyrics, from opening track “Angry Words” (download), is the singer/songwriter confessional at its finest: Four minutes and fourteen seconds of personal absolution, set against a breezy musical backdrop and lyrics just personal enough to make you think they were written with you in mind.
“Angry Words” was a watershed song for Porter; thankfully, the rest of Dog Eared Dream is, if not just as strong, at least somewhere in the neighborhood. The loping, hangdog “Rita,” tongue-in-cheek “Jesus on the Grille,” plangent “Boab Tree,” and skittery “Glow” (download) are all among his finest songs. Really, there isn’t a bad one here.
Dream was initially self-released, and its success attracted the notice of Private Music, the BMG-distributed indie which once played host to a number of fine artists (among them A.J. Croce, who will one day get the Guide treatment). Unfortunately, for all its good intentions and seemingly deep pockets, Private never succeeded in doing much for even its veteran artists, let alone fresh faces. Porter got some decent press for Dream, and opened for a laundry list of “hot in ’95″ artists (including Tori Amos, who once said Porter’s playing made her want to crawl inside his guitar). It didn’t add up to much in the way of sales, though, and Porter parted ways with Private after one release.
Falling Forward (1999)
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He ended up on Six Degrees, a terribly hip San Francisco indie equally at home with songwriters like Porter and Peter Himmelman as they are with continent-spanning remix projects. This adventurous spirit fit hand in glove with Falling Forward, in its own way just as big a quantum leap from Dog Eared Dream as that album was from The Trees Have Soul. Seven years on and counting, it’s still my favorite Porter album.
The big difference here is in the production; where Trees and Dream are, in essence, basic guy-with-guitar records, Falling Forward is wrapped in a terrific gauzy haze, courtesy of Porter’s employment of an arsenal of loops and samples. It sounds more organic than you think — just listen to the air raid sirens and canned drums of “Cut the Rope” (download) — and, in spots, it’s positively haunting.
Witness “Infinity” (download), the album’s emotional centerpiece and my all-time favorite Porter song:
Hey, did you sell out for a suitcase full of trains
All you got was rain
And love turned into a daisy chain
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 face contains
All that I know is real
I loved you when your conscience
Kept you trying
How could your soul be drying out
Like laundry on the line
If “Angry Words” was a watershed, “Infinity” is a torrent, and Falling Forward is a sad, lovely, multi-colored album.
Willy Porter (2002)
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When an artist waits multiple releases into his or her career to self-title an album, it’s usually an indication of some kind of career restatement — think Metallica’s ‘black album’ and you’ll see what I mean. Willy Porter doesn’t represent a significant departure from what’s come before — especially not the way his first, second and third albums differed from one another — but it’s a lot more radio-ready than much of his prior output, so maybe that’s enough.
These songs have never quite moved me the same way much of Falling Forward did (and does), but I get the feeling I’m probably somewhat in the minority there; Willy Porter continued the artist’s slow, steady upward climb from Madison, WI sensation to national renown. It wasn’t a hit, naturally, but if you were listening to NPR or your favorite AAA station at the right moment, you probably heard some DJ or other waxing rhapsodic about Porter’s talent.
The songs are good — particularly the “single,” “If Love Were an Airplane” (download) and the drop-dead beautiful “Unconditional” (download) — and the production has the kind of simple, steely pop sheen that is supposed to draw artists out of the margins.
Given that this album is likely owned by neither you nor anyone you know, this didn’t work in Porter’s case. Doesn’t mean Willy Porter is a bad record by any stretch. It just isn’t the most compelling argument for his talent.
High Wire Live (2003)
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From polished up to stripped down went Porter; on High Wire Live, with the exception of a single song, it’s just the man and his guitar.
It’s an old conceit, especially in the singer/songwriter world, but it works particularly well here. Part of the genius of each of Porter’s albums is the way he employs various production techniques to service the songs, but at the root of everything, he’s simply a phenomenal guitarist. His vocals have been described as “unremarkable,” and I suppose that’s true enough, but he’s extremely skilled at writing for his voice, in such a way that his vocal limitations are often strengths.
There are few surprises here — the songs are basically a cross-section of his two Six Degrees albums, plus a cover of Richard Shindell’s haunting “You Wait Here” — but nobody buys this type of live album for surprises. You buy them because you want to hear the songs’ beating hearts laid bare, and on High Wire Live, Porter delivers.
It’s essential for fans only, and probably doesn’t even really work as a primer for new listeners, since these versions are sometimes significantly different from the originals. If nothing else, though, listening to Wire will make you want to get tickets to a Willy Porter concert near you. Check out the loose audience interplay on “Mystery” (download) and the jaw-dropping “Road Bone” (download).
And that’s the story so far. Porter recently released a non-album track, “Valentine,” on his site, and is currently working on a new self-released album for later this year. Of all the compliments I’ve paid his music here, I think the highest is probably this: In writing these Guides, I often listen to nothing but music by the artist in question for days at a time, and this sometimes gets tiresome. Three or four days of nothing but Jackson Browne, for instance, can really start to try a man’s soul.
In Porter’s case, though, the songs never get old. See if you don’t agree.