The deaths of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse and more have inspired the myth that 27 is the age past which no musical youth icon can live. M. Lockwood Porter, also aged 27 but definitely alive, thoughtfully grabbed the number for the title of his sophomore alt-country/country-rock/just plain rock album. His debut Judah’s Gone focused on the past (just look at that title); 27 is a coming-of-age rumination that turns his gaze from youthful aches to the troubles of living in the adult world.
27 does not contain fluffy or stereotypical lyrics: while there are a couple jilted-lover tunes, they fit into a larger paradigm of the difficult questions Porter is asking about life. Thoughts about mortality (“Chris Bell,” about another lost 27-year-old musician), the possibility of not achieving dreams (“Restless”), religion (“Couer D’Alene”), and leaving behind a legacy (“Mountains”) paint a picture of a person standing at the edge of adulthood and grappling with what he’s found so far. I may not agree with every conclusion, but I’m deeply glad that the sentiments are expressed with enough depth and clarity that I can actually agree or disagree with them. That’s a pretty rare accomplishment in the rock world.
The album’s centerpiece is the ballad “Mountains,” which pulls all of these thoughts about life together. It starts with tom hits that sound like a heartbeat before Porter wearily sings, “When I was young my father said / that faith could move a mountain / now there’s mountains as far as I can see.” Striking piano, tasteful percussion, and an earnest guitar line fill out the raw, earnest tune. I wish I could write out all the lyrics for you, but Porter distills it all into one sweeping statement to close the tune: “And as I stare across the vast expanse / I can hear my father shouting / but mountains are all that I can see.”
Porter serves up these musings in expertly crafted alt-country/country-rock tunes. Porter’s been in a bunch of bands of various genres over the past dozen years, and he’s learned things from all of them. Opener “I Know You’re Going to Leave Me” crescendoes to a pounding, ragged, desperate, shiver-inducing rock ending; he follows it up with “Chris Bell,” which is about as perfect an alt-country song as Gram Parsons could hope to hear. “You Only Talk About Your Band” is a rollicking, impassioned ’50s rock’n’roll tune that sounds like it fell out of a time machine somewhere, while Bruce Springsteen would approve of the insistent piano and urgent vocals in “Restless.” “Secrets” sounds like a San Francisco indie-pop mosey, an influence holdover from his time in The 21st Century. “Couer D’Alene” is a delicate acoustic-and-voice tune to close out the record. All of these songs are impressive in their own right, and yet none feel out of place on the record.
Porter keeps these disparate sounds and ideas held together through a consistent vocal presence on the record. No matter what genre Porter writes, he works to make his voice inhabit the song. There are no bad vehicles here: Porter sounds completely at home in each of these tunes. Instead of sounding pristine, the opposite is true: by feeling comfortable throughout, he’s able to allow his voice some fluctuations and character without needing to edit it out. It gives the whole album a careworn, comfortable feel, similar to a Justin Townes Earle song or Josh Ritter’s The Beast In Its Tracks.
27 has the sort of musical and lyrical depth that causes me to come up with more things to say than I have space for. (Two things that got cut: 1. comparing the lyrics of “Mountains” with my favorite Ryan Adams track “Rock and Roll,” which you should do on your own time; 2. The production job is excellent.) Personally Porter is in transition, but lyrically Porter is hitting his stride to be able to describe the struggles so compellingly. Musically he’s creating work that shines as a whole and as individual tracks, which shows a rare maturity. You need to hear this one.
Fri, 10/10 – San Francisco, CA @ Brick and Mortar w/ Victor Krummenacher
Fri, 10/17 – Oklahoma City, OK @ The Blue Note
Sat, 10/18 – Tulsa, OK @ Mercury Lounge
Sun, 10/19 – Lawrence, KS @ Jackpot Music Hall
Mon, 10/20 – Iowa City, IA @ Gabe’s
Tues, 10/21 – Chicago, IL @ Reggie’s
Wed, 10/22 – Eaton, OH @ Taffy’s
Thurs, 10/23 – Philadelphia @ The Grape Room
Sat, 10/25 – NYC @ Wicked Willy’s at 6:30 pm (Official CMJ Showcase)
Sun, 10/26 – NYC @ Rockwood Music Hall Stage 1
Mon, 10/27 – Charlotte @ Thomas Street Tavern
Tues, 10/28 – Chapel Hill @ The Cave (I’ll be at this one)
Wed, 10/29 – Nashville, TN @ The 5 Spot
Thurs, 10/30 – Huntsville, AL @ Maggie Meyer’s Irish Pub
Fri, 10/31 – Clarksdale, MS @ Shack Up Inn
Sat, 11/1 – Lafayette, LA @ Artmosphere
Sun, 11/2 – Austin, TX @ Sahara Lounge
Mon, 11/3 – Dallas @ Opening Bell
I’ve been listening to M. Lockwood Porter‘s bands since 2005. In that time, he’s been in an early 2000s emo band, an energetic post-rock band that held my personal “favorite band ever” title for a good five years, and a San Fran indie-pop band. Now he’s stepping out on his own with a solo record called Judah’s Gone. And although it’s been almost a decade since he’s lived in Oklahoma, the record is largely about that place which Lockwood and I share as a home state.
Neither of us live there anymore, but apparently an Oklahoma flag hangs in the background of both our minds. The three highlight tracks from the record (“Judah’s Gone,” “Now My Time Has Come,” and “Osage County”) all reference the state specifically and neatly lay out the narrative of the album. Opener “Judah’s Gone” tells the story of Lockwood’s childhood and parentage in the state (spoiler: it doesn’t go so well), which leads to him fleeing the state as soon as he graduated high school (“Now My Time Has Come”). A bunch of relationships and regrets occur in his forays on both coasts (all the other songs on the record), before he looks back longingly at Oklahoma in a complicated, attached sort of way (“Osage County”). It’s the story of many, many Oklahomans, this one included. If there’s an ex-pat Oklahoman Facebook group somewhere, Lockwood should be promoting this there. It would sell like dry-rub chicken barbecue.
The fact that Judah’s Gone sounds largely like a lost Neil Young record would help the sales pitch as well. The arrangements are twangy, but in that laid-back, Southern sort of way that Neil Young virtually patented. Lockwood’s voice breaks and bends over notes (a la Neil), but largely stays in a recognizably “correct” range. Porter is a lot less nasally than Young, which is also great. The album only has one rockish tune: the fast-paced “Tonight,” which barely gets over 2:00. Porter puts some distortion on his voice for the tune, and it fits nicely. It’s nowhere near an art-rock tune from his previous ventures, but you can tell that Porter has a rock background. Otherwise, this is a folky alt-country record the whole way.
The few quibbles that could be lobbed at the record have to do with this being his debut in the genre: tunes like “Darkside” and “Higher Home” fit perfectly into the proscribed narratives of what folky alt-country should sound like, both in sound and word. The tunes sound fine, but they don’t show off Porter’s skills as a storyteller or melodist very well because of their adherence to tried-and-true formulas. Porter shows on tracks like “Stephen” (not about me) that he can bend the formulas to his skill set: the track is a mid-tempo song about the guy with vast promise who never left home. The tune is memorable because of the melodic chorus and the detailed care with which the lyrics are composed. So even if some tracks are a bit less shiny than the rest, it’s not something that a few more albums of songwriting can’t polish up.
M. Lockwood Porter has established himself as a talent to watch on Judah’s Gone. Tracks like the title track and “Osage County” show a melodic and lyrical talent with range and depth. It will be interesting to see where Porter goes from here as he gets familiar with the genre. I’ll be listening attentively to whatever it is. (Especially if there’s more Oklahoma angst.)
I love it when a specific scene has an identifiable sound. Sometimes I don’t like the specific sound that is happening, but I love the idea that people kicking around ideas among themselves over a long period of time will come up with iterations, similarities and variations that push toward the sum. And there almost always is a sum, even if it’s something seemingly unquantifiable like an artistic movement: the pinnacle of a form does not appear on the first try, by anyone. Rockin’ the Suburbs was nowhere near the first piano-pop album, nor Ben Folds’ first rodeo; it just happens to have assimilated all the ideas that had been kicking about in a particularly excellent way.
All that to say this: the lush orchestrations, wide-eyed lyrics, group vocals and bohemian charm make The City by The 21st Century sound very much like a Pacific Northwest indie pop band (The Morning Benders/Pop Etc, Grizzly Bear, Local Natives – although they’re from LA). And instead of that being a bad thing, it’s a great thing. “We Are Waiters” has familiar elements like plunking piano and big group vocals, but they invite the listener in so the band can drop the intoxicating chorus. I had the chorus on loop in my mind for days after I heard it the first time, and that’s incredibly rare for a guy who listens to music all day.
The band makes its living on gleeful tunes that incorporate guitar noodling, horns, organ solos and a well-developed sense of space. These songs may have a lot going on, but they’re not crowded: the production allows for everything to breathe. “The Good Things (Act I and II)” is the best example of this, as the band throws the kitchen sink at the tune and it still doesn’t feel as heavy as a power-pop trio with a huge guitar riff. “A Funeral March (The State of Our Parade)” is another melodic highlight, filled out with lyrics about the meaning of life (no, for real). “The Parisian Translation” gets its Decemberists on in the melodic structures, but not so much that it feels like a rip-off. It’s just incredibly fun. (And yes, there’s French spoken in the song!)
So where does the line draw between inhabiting a sound and retreading a sound? I think the difference lies in each person’s desire for the genre, just like I mentioned yesterday: The 21st Century’s game is the same as Friends of Mine. (This style of indie-pop is just as divisive as country, and I would guess mostly for the same reasons: two parts backlash to its related culture, one part resistance to the idiosyncrasies of the sound). The 21st Century takes an established sound and builds something inside it; those with a low threshold for the genre’s quirks won’t get this and feel that it’s just some more of that stuff, while those who love the genre will enjoy the new entrant into the field.
Given that ideas ruminate and kick around, the entry of another band into the field allows for another possible group who could come up with the definitive statement (or statements!) for this genre. If you’re a fan of the type of music that The Morning Benders purveyed on Big Echo, this one’s going to make you sit up and take notice.
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.