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.