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But I can’t recall your touch at all.

March 22, 2010

Derek Porter – Strangers, Vol. 1
Piercing Music

01. All I Know Will Be Forgotten
02. Your Fruit
03. I Remember
04. I Forgot
05. Hermeticist Alchemist
06. The Rabble, Pt. 1

I’ve never met Derek Porter. We’ve exchanged a few e-mails and I know him through friends of friends and cheifly from his brief stint in Hollus last year when the Chicago-based band was hawking its Joker & The Queen LP. I like Hollus, and not just because I’ve known most of the band personally for years and years, but because they actually are a damn fine band and are always very accomodating whenever I’m in the Chicago area. However, I didn’t hang out in the Chicago area much during Derek’s time in the band, so we never had the chance to shake hands. I’ve hung out with his older brother a few times, and his older brother’s a good dude. So that’s about all the knowledge I had of Derek.

Then I saw this video last year which really blew me away. First off, incredible sound for a video shot in that style, but the real draw was the song itself. And I’m not sure why. Because the finger-picky acoustic, “this will sound good in a coffeehouse” thing is always a tough sell for me. But something about the voice and delivery just seemed to say, “No really, listen to this one.” And ending a song by repeating “Oh my God…” seemed kind of ingenious.

The good news is the song is now all spiffed up and a piece of Derek’s latest album (I hadn’t even known he had three or four or however many more), and of the six songs on it, it’s not even the best moment.

I’ve listened to Strangers, Vol. 1 pretty heavily for the past two weeks, and the thing that strikes me about it is that while there were things I heard immediately and thought “Ah, that’s the best moment easily” (see: “Your Fruit”), the more I listened, the more other songs engaged me. At the moment, I’m really hooked on “I Remember” (which I also like for the fact that it comes right before “I Forgot”… I don’t know if that was a conscious tracklist decision, but it’s the best titular pairing on an album since Elliott Smith ended XO with “Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands” and “I Didn’t Understand”).

Like “I Forgot,” “I Remember” is a nice little fingerpicking exercise… the kind of song you could easily see Stephen Stills penning. But actually “I Remember” and the rest of Strangers kind of makes me think of Nick Drake. I haven’t checked since 2003 or so, but I think that’s still the vogue thing to say about any acoustic driven artist. So I have to qualify that comparison by saying, I’m not looking for a cop out and easy way to end this review. So hear me out.

Nick recorded three albums in his life, right? And each one had a distinct feel. Five Leaves Left was the fancy one that sounded really rich and beautiful. Bryter Layter was the one where he decided drums and bass weren’t so bad and thought, “Ah, what the hell, I’ll try writing a few happy songs,” and then Pink Moon was the one that was pretty damn dark and lonely, but it brought everyone’s attention to Nick ‘cos the good people at Volkswagon thought the title track could push a few Cabrios. Which it did.

So anyway, you have this distinct problem when you compare something to Nick Drake, because anyone who knows Nick Drake is going to say, “Yeah, well, WHICH Nick Drake?”

And Strangers sounds to me like Nick Drake if he’d actually decided to make Pink Moon a lot warmer and friendlier. I’m not going to say happier, because the songs on this record aren’t “I love you and sha la la la,” but it’s really an easily approachable album. Everyone with GarageBand and an acoustic guitar wants to make a record like this, but the problem with that is that this kind of music runs the very real risk of casting general indifference in the listener.

And trust me, I’m one of the most indifferent listeners out there. Very few new bands genuinely excite me, and even when the old favorites come out with new material, I’m finding I’m a lot less forgiving than I was when I was 20 or so (ahem, Travis).

So Porter’s real accomplishment with Strangers, Vol. 1 is not that he made me pay attention, it’s how he made me pay attention. He took a well-worn and familiar approach to crafting each of the six songs on here, but it still sounds much better than the countless other artists who learn a few chords and go running down the same roads. There’s a care to the craft here. There’s an earnestness in the delivery. And there’s an album you should go check out.

Good songwriters take those extra steps and think about them. And Derek Porter is a very, very, very good songwriter. And considering he handles pretty much every instrument and harmony on here, a pretty good musician too.

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