Derek Porter’s Strangers, Vol. 1 was a atmospheric, folky affair that called up Bon Iver comparisons. Strangers, Vol. 2 is an experimental pop affair that has almost nothing to do with the warm tones and acoustic guitars of the first installation. This doesn’t mean that it’s bad, but it’s certainly an adjustment the listener has to make.
Porter’s new sound revels in juxtapositions, unusual sounds and unexpected chord changes. “Roger the Engineer” features a catchy chorus (“Lord, can’t take much more of this!”) that subverts expectations by swinging up at the end to an unusual chord. Then there’s the frantic, interesting outro, that shows up, is awesome, and then leaves before I wish it would.
Then again, “All is Loss” is a pretty standard piano tune that is not that far off from Vol. 1. But then the Lou Reed-influenced “When I Forget My Name” ratchets up the unusual again. It’s not totally avant-garde; just enough to keep listeners on their toes. But then “I’ve Been Walking” and “Tongue in Cheek” are jazzy lounge pieces, and full avant-garde pop returns with the seven-minute “Chestnut Tree” balancing morose atmospherics seemingly straight out of Vol. 1 with weird, Grandaddy-esque pop that abruptly stops and starts. It’s the best of the seven, as it meshes what I expected with the new thing he wanted to say.
And then it’s over. It is a bizarre little journey, but it’s one that leaves me scratching my head and repeating it, instead of scratching my head and deleting it. I’m not sure where Derek Porter is going or what he wants to be, but the tunes he turns out keep my interest. That’s for sure.
There are artists in this world that cut a huge swath across their genre. They’re the Bob Dylan, Arcade Fire, Death Cab for Cutie and Shins-type bands; their sound is so distinct that it’s hard for them to escape it, much less anyone who sounds like them. This is a shame, because as any hipster will tell you, Nirvana wasn’t the first band to sound like Nirvana. There were people before and after Nirvana who sounded just like ’em, but those before didn’t get the glory and those after glommed onto the glory without earning it or were shunted to the side as copycats.
I hope that Derek Porter can fall into the former category; it would be easy to shove him aside as a Bon Iver disciple, but that’s not a fair judgment. There are striking similarities in the folk tunes of the two men: both have a rustic sound, favor spare arrangements and feature a high, trembling vocalist. But where Bon Iver makes paeans to the cold desolation of heartbreak, Derek Porter’s Strangers, Vol. 1 is a humble and inviting exploration of memory.
It’s probably good that these tunes aren’t as wholesale despair-laden as Bon Iver’s work. I don’t know if I could take much more of that. I much prefer Porter’s lively, bluegrass-inflected “I Remember” to the atmospheric density he employs in “All I Know Will Be Forgotten.” When “I Remember” drifts off into a weary haze, it still doesn’t meander into navel-gazing depression. This is because Porter takes careful care of the moods he creates; he’s not creating standard depressing fare, but his strength is still the moods he is putting out.
“I Forgot” is a cheery, wide-eyed tune, incorporating an accordion to great effect. It doesn’t have the direct, powerful melodies that some bands make their living on, but the overall mood cultivated is just as satisfying in this and other cases. There are good melodies sprinkled throughout, but the moods are much more consistent and thereby more praiseworthy.
Derek Porter’s Strangers, Vol. 1 is a solid EP. If you’re big on atmosphere (or a film scorer), Derek Porter should jump high up in your queue. He’s got a composer’s ear and skills. The tunes aren’t as direct, clear and elegant as Avett Brothers or Low Anthem tunes, but his command of mood transforms a room. It will be interesting to see if he develops his melodic prowess in the future or whether he pours himself even more into the atmosphere work. No matter which way he goes, Strangers, Vol. 1 is a great EP to put on during a lazy day and just be with.
Nashville folk/indie-pop outfit Pageant‘s latest single “Don’t Stop the Rain” gets pretty literal in its accompanying clip, surveying the varied lives and meanings of water in our world and culture. It’s enough to make a Californian faint.
The song itself is a jaunty duet that draws heavily on indie-pop and folk conventions without falling neatly into either category. The vocals are the feature here, with Derek and Erika Porter’s voices intertwining throughout the tune as leads and backup vocals. There’s some pedal steel and harmonica to counter the vocal focus, while the bass guitar does some admirable work keeping the tune traveling sprightly on. The overall effect is close to the full-band vibes that Creedence Clearwater Revival put out–which is appropriate, as Derek Porter mentioned the band’s work as a major touchpoint. His full comments, which he graciously penned for us:
“I love CCR’s “Who’ll Stop the Rain” and the mystical, open-ended lyrics of the track, and I always heard it as an anti-war, anti-government protest song at its heart. I wanted to take that idea even further and make the lyrics more universal and removed from the point of view and period of time in which it was originally written, so I wrote “Don’t Stop the Rain” as a direct response, playing devil’s advocate. Pageant’s song doesn’t have a clear message but is more of a free spirited thought exercise — overall, I enjoyed the poetry of the original and riffed on it.”
The state of the acoustic guitar: It has become helpful, perhaps even necessary, to say the word “folk” in reference to yourself if you play songs that include an acoustic prominently. This is sad, because it muddies the real definition of folk and devalues other genres that also use the six-string prominently. Pageant plays songs based in old-school country, ’50s girl-pop, and perky piano indie-pop. It is a fascinating and engaging amalgam, and Lost Ourselves deserves its own praise (not just the overused label of “folk!”). But linguistically we must say what we must to get people to listen. Oh well.
This intriguing genre soup is most easily evident in single “Trustfunders,” which combines tambourine, pedal steel, plunking bass and saloon piano as a foundation. On this very country structure, Erika Porter and her back-up males sing verses that sound straight out of 1958. The chorus makes me wonder why they aren’t on tour with Mates of State right now. It all flows seamlessly, which is no small feat. Bravo, Pageant. Bravo.
This fluid merging of genres is assisted by Derek Porter’s presence in the band: Porter has experience with experimental pop that comes through on “I Live in My Father’s House.” The song starts off in an a capella format before morphing into a bass-driven indie-pop tune. It takes yet another turn into a madcap, sort-of rock tune before slamming the door. That all happens in under two minutes. It’s followed up by the title track, a straight-ahead vintage pop nugget with a sweet sax-led horn section. “Thinking Makes It So” sees Derek take the lead vocals on a song that leans all the way over to Western swing. It’s excellently pulled off. Then there’s the gorgeous “Shut the Door,” which pulls all of their affectations together into something beautifully, distinctly Pageant.
Pageant has a lot going on, but it never feels like they do. They’ve managed to situate all of their songwriting flights of fancy so that none of them feel out of place. That’s a rare feat. Lost Ourselves is an inventive, creative record that packs a ton of ideas into seven tunes. I eagerly look forward to what else Pageant comes up with, and encourage you to jump on the Pageant train before it takes off from the station.
The line between Peter Bradley Adams’ nuanced singer/songwriter fare and Matt Nathanson’s bright, obvious pop is sometimes a matter of magnitude and emphasis: the most cerebral of tunesmiths can fall in love with a big melody, while populists can get complex too. Russell Howard lives in the space between these poles, drifting toward one side or the other as the song demands on his City Heart + double EP.
“Home Sweet Home” is his most Adams-esque tune, as Howard pairs a gentle, fingerpicked guitar line with shakers and a pristine vocal performance. His confident but not overbearing voice carries the sense of loss that runs through the tune beautifully. Add in some light arrangement and an octave-jumping vocal finale, and Howard’s mined gold. On the other side of the spectrum, “Under the Weight” and “You, Me & Someday” mine Room for Squares-era John Mayer in the guitar and drum styles. The quiet closer “Morning” leans toward more pensive work, giving his voice a showcase again.
The acoustic side of the double EP isn’t markedly different from the full-band version of the release, as his arrangements are tasteful and uncluttered in their fleshed-out form. City Heart + shows Howard as a songwriter who has the skills to write compellingly for different audiences. It’s a fine introduction to a new voice, if you’re not acquainted with any of his back catalog.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.