How to Rob a Bank
First Appeared in The Music Box, November 2009, Volume 16, #11
Written by John Metzger
Thu November 12, 2009, 06:30 AM CST
Over the years, Wisconsin quietly has become something of a haven for underappreciated songwriters. Jeffery Foucault, Peter Mulvey, and Paul Cebar are just a few of the artists with ties to the Badger State. Yet, while they all have succeeded in cultivating loyal followings on both the local and national scenes, none of them has really garnered the kind of attention that they truly have deserved.
Of all the performers who have called Wisconsin home, however, Willy Porter is the one who has appeared to be closest to landing on mainstream radio stations across the country. Ever since he issued his sophomore set Dog Eared Dream in 1994, he has looked as if he was on the verge of achieving something big, but fame and fortune never arrived at his doorstep. Now a veteran artist instead of a burgeoning upstart, Porter remains a relatively obscure commodity in a world that favors youth over talent.
Long ago, Porter forged his own unique style from an array of influences that range from Pat Metheny to Bruce Hornsby and from Bill Withers to The Beatles. With Dog Eared Dream, however, he began not only to pare back his flashy guitar pyrotechnics ó at least in the studio ó but also to polish his songs until they twinkled beneath the glow of the moon in the nighttime sky. With each of his subsequent albums, Porter tweaked his approach, subtly reinventing himself by folding one style into the next one. Through this process, he revealed the various aspects of his musical persona. Without wavering from his established vision, he has assembled a remarkably consistent string of endeavors that fit together neatly, like a collection of snapshots. Nevertheless, many of his efforts also have had a tendency to be less immediate and satisfying than either Dog Eared Dream or its predecessor The Trees Have Soul.
With his latest outing How to Rob a Bank, Porter continues to refine his style, and the result surely is one of the more diverse albums in his canon. On The Lemon Tree, for example, he dips a delicate, McCartney-esque melody into an Andrew Bird-inspired, chamber-folk arrangement, while Fear Only Fear drafts its rippling rhythms from Bruce Cockburnís solo acoustic projects. Elsewhere, Psychic Vampire crosses from blues to jazz, and Hard Place softens the southern-rock edges of Drive-By Truckersí work. Once again, though, Porter stops short of his target because he never quite finds the final pieces that would make his melodies utterly unshakeable.
At its heart, How to Rob a Bank ó like Porterís other recent offerings ó revels in its slickly delivered simplicity. Its songs, at least initially, seem to be far removed from the intricate guitar patterns that dominated the material on The Trees Have Soul. With time, however, the subtle textures he weaves into his arrangements combine to elevate the affair, revealing the intimacy as well as the aggressive ambition that burbles beneath the surface of tracks like Colored Lights and Wide Open Mind.
Porter shows the greatest growth within his lyrics. Throughout How to Rob a Bank, he spins tales from a variety of perspectives, assuming roles like an actor. On Hard Place, itís a Marine; on Learning the Language, itís an assortment of characters in need of liberation from their past; and on How to Rob a Bank, itís a corporate executive who ran off with the loot he stole from the pockets of everyday Americans. Porter speaks personally, too, pledging his love in Barefoot Reel and cleverly couching frustrations with his own career in a song about artists who achieved their fame only in death.
Arguably, Porterís early successes likely established expectations that were, perhaps, unsustainable. In hindsight, these goals created obstacles that proved to be difficult to avoid. Although his output has always been solid, it often contained hints that he was struggling, at times, to come to grips with who he was and what he wanted to achieve. Something within him seemed to change, however, during the making of his 2006 endeavor Available Light. With How to Rob a Bank, he continues to build upon his newfound self-assurance and maturity. Itís been a long road back, but Porterís journey is nearly complete. Ĺ
Of Further Interest...
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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