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(Partisan Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/10/2012)
Much of the commercial pop world seems to be aiming for a kind of sound that is almost totally devoid of musical space, with every second of the music, whether it's commercial rock, hip-hop or even supposedly mellow pop, completely filled with sound at the maximum level absolutely all the time. But there has been something of a counter-trend in some sectors of the alternative rock world for music that has more space and goes for a more atmospheric quality. In some cases, it's just a crummy band with a lot of reverb on their record, but there are signs of a bit more ethereal sound being generated by groups from the alternative rock world.
This week, we have another worthwhile example of a project that has some open musical space. The group and album are both called Field Report, and what they come up with is an interesting combination of roots rock with atmospheric synthesizer textures.
Field Report is essentially one of those one-person bands that has been proliferating in these days of instant multitrack studios on laptop computers, which allow a single person to do all the instrumentation and take their time at it. We have reviewed recordings in the recent past by other of these one-person projects, such as Cantinero, Weaver at the Loom, and Wolftron. In the case of Field Report, it's the brainchild of Wisconsinite Chris Porterfield. Back around 2005, Porterfield was in a group called DeYarmond Edison, whose members also included Justin Vernon, who would go on to form the Grammy-winning band Bon Iver, and three founding members of the band Megafaun, who have also enjoyed popularity on the alternative scene. After DeYarmond Edison broke up in 2006, Chris Porterfield was expecting that his days in music as a career were over. But over a period of five years, he started writing his own music -- previously he was not a composer in the band -- at his own pace, doing a lot of editing and revising of the songs before he decided to go ahead and record them. He hooked up with Bon Iver's Justin Vernon again who let Porterfield record his project in Vernon's studio, and the result is the album Field Report.
Porterfield turns out to be an impressive songwriter, creating material that is musically sophisticated and lyrically intriguing. Porterfield's compositions have a kind of roots-rock singer-songwriter sensibility, with a sound that often evokes wide-open spaces, and lyrics that can be multi-layered with some distinctive turns of phrase. But this might have been another Midwestern singer-songwriter album but for the tasteful synthesizer atmospherics that can give the music a whole other texture.
This is presumably a solo effort, but there are additional musicians apparent, such as some strings and horns, but they are not credited.
The CD is rather like an old psychedelic-era concept album with many of the tracks running one into the other with the synthesizer drones. It's a reminder of how that kind of thing could nicely tie the music on an album together, in the days before downloads shredded the continuity of the album-length musical project.
Opening is a piece that sets the contemplative, atmospheric quality for the recording. Fergus Falls is a kind of impressionistic story. <<>>
A rather fascinating and convoluted love song has an appropriate title The Years of the Get You Alone. The piece likewise has the appealingly ethereal sound evoked by much of the album, while the lyrics are also off the beaten path. <<>>
Another of the album's notable tracks is I Am Not Waiting Anymore. Outwardly it's the kind of thing one might hear from a rough-hewn singer-songwriter, but there's that intriguing spacey quality. <<>>
Circle Drive is notable for its distinctive lyrics brought in the service of essentially a love song. <<>>
Captain Video is another impressionistic piece both musically and lyrically. It's nicely done, and features a little of the steel guitar that Porterfield used to play with the DeYarmond Edison band. <<>>
Once in a while, Field Report's lugubrious contemplative songs can border on the dreary. A track called Evergreen also has poetically intriguing lyrics, but overall the tune tends to drag. <<>>
On the other hand probably the album's most elaborate track is Chico the American, which weaves together this album's strengths in both musical textures and lyrical interest. <<>>
The CD ends with Route 18 which strips down the sound to essentially the folky acoustic guitar and the distinctive spacey synthesizer textures. <<>>
Field Report the debut album by the band of the same name is an creative mix of rootsy singer-songwriter ingredients, first-rate literate lyric writing, and a curious atmospheric quality with the rather omnipresent keyboard sounds reminiscent of the New Age scene. It's an interesting mixture that continues a bit of a trend among a few alternative rock influenced bands to reach for a more laid-back sound, and for the most part, it's very well done, though some of the vocal harmonies are not the album's best moments. But for the most part, it's appealing and with a distinctive sound.
Our grade for audio quality is about a B-plus. The mix is for the most part commendable, but the sound can be a bit murky at times, and volume compression detracts from the ebb and flow of the music.
Field Report is essentially a one-person project, but founder Chris Porterfield -- one can see where the name "Field Report" comes from -- has been touring, opening for such people as Emmylou Harris and Counting Crows, so a band has obviously been put together for the purpose. Perhaps that will evolve into a regular group for a future album. But this eponymous mostly solo recording is a worthwhile and often intriguing debut that puts a creative spin on the singer-songwriter roots-rock ilk.
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