When it comes to celebrating American roots in the arts, it’s always been rife with tough exterior and dark underbelly. Western film protagonists routinely exhibit just as much vice as virtue; the stars of classic country/western music were riddled with unreliable, unfaithful boozehounds; even the recent decades’ alt-country movement had retained that chemically-addled, devil may care attitude of their forebears. The point is, even as time and technology push us forward, further away from our origins, this art reflected and reminded us of the toil, the moral imperfection, the thirst for redemption housed within America’s soul.
We’ve lost much of this come 2014. Western movies are practically nowhere to be found, what is peddled as Country music these days is chock full of shtick, schlock, or any other “sh” term that may come to mind, and the stars, so to speak, of alt-country have mellowed and moved on from that life and sound. Their second album, Marigolden, finds Chris Porterfield and his Milwaukee, Wisconsin band, Field Report, primed to step into the fray and take up this mantle. Porterfield and company musically play the genre fairly straight, though excessively introspective, peppering it with light electronic touches. But, as is often the case in this artistic vein, the music largely functions as simply the means of conveying the words.
Pop music is escapism, whether hedonistically celebrating being carefree, willfully journeying to a left field fantasy land, or smoothing out heartache and pain with electronics and slick production. Ultimately, you won’t go too far without feeling life’s gritty textures, without looking in the mirror at some point and not liking what you see, without honestly trying to take stock of who you are, where you are, where you’ve been, and where you’re headed to. From the outset, on Marigolden’s opening track, “Decision Day”, Porterfield’s pronouncement, “when I held your hand in my blood-free hands/I swear they were the cleanest ones in town”, exemplifies the sincere, tactile, and human images that thread their way through the album.
Lead single, “Home (Leave The Lights On)”, though admittedly the least organic and, perhaps, uncomfortable sounding track here, sets forth Porterfield’s notion for Marigolden of what “home” truly means and how arduous a road it may be to find it. His quavering uncertainty, “I don’t know if I can be/a place to go or what you need” in “Pale Rider” or rueful declaration that he’s “been pissing coffee, quinine, and lime” on “Summons” are sure fire indicators that, despite “Decision Day”s bruised, cautious optimism, Porterfield’s ego is still beaten and his past still an all-too-recent albatross. However, the glints of light are there now, even in the sparest of climes accompanied solely by piano amidst an anecdote of suicide on “Ambrosia”, he proclaims he’s “got the past on the run”.
There will be detractors. Porterfield’s lyricism can border on eccentric at times – try loving someone “like a lamprey” (“Michelle”) or missing them “like tongues miss old teeth” (“Enchantment”) on for size – there’s certainly nary a whiff of a hook anywhere on Marigolden, and it may seem to want for energy. Well, life isn’t made of hooks; it is, in fact, distracted by them and eventually you have to face up. As the worn out adage goes, “it’s darkest before the dawn”, Porterfield is on the cusp of it, but he’s been up all night crawling and scratching his way there. He’s Clint Eastwood; he’s George Jones; he’s proudly accepted the baton of his Alt-Country ancestors, for Marigolden is a quiet exclamatory statement hearkening toward what’s gone missing from America’s roots.