Christopher Porterfield and his former band Conrad Plymouth were something of a local treasure in Milwaukee. But earlier this year Porterfield announced the end of that band and its replacement with a new one called Field Report – a rearrangement of the letters in Porterfield. The band’s self-titled debut, which features old Conrad Plymouth songs together with new material, is a fully realized effort that proves Porterfield to be one of music’s finest working lyricists and presents a haunting portrait of damaged lives, wounded relationships and the city we call home.
Field Report picks up where Conrad Plymouth left off on its last proper release, a self-titled EP with an anthemic closing track called “Fergus Falls” that turned heads locally when it was released in 2010.
A new recording of that song – more delicate and patient than the original – is this album’s breathtaking opener. Its jubilant build and radiant harmonies make it one of the few moments of triumph on an album that is concerned primarily with loss. In “Fergus,” a pilot tells of the time he “miraculously pulled out of a freefall dive over Fergus Falls, Minnesota.” In other songs, Porterfield’s characters are not so lucky. They too are trapped in freefalls; nosedives of disillusionment and disconnect. In the excellent “I Am Not Waiting Anymore,” there are years spent in bitter expectation of someone that never arrives. In album closer “Route 18,” a man looks back with regret and anger at a life – an “American narrative” – that didn’t pan out. The shred of a refrain in this final song – “we fucked up but won’t admit it,” repeated three times in blunt succession – brings the album’s anxieties to a bleak conclusion.
While the instrumentation on Field Report generally serves as a canvas for Porterfield’s vocals, it can be credited with creating the mash-up of cinematic tranquility and deep uneasiness that defines the album.
Eerie synthesizers, ghostly piano keys, the distant whine of a slide guitar or the wail of a backup vocal constantly hover at the fringes of Porterfield’s voice, ornamenting but never overshadowing it. Field Report is not your Saturday morning feel-good record. But there is beauty in its darkness like there is beauty in a thunderstorm.
The lonely and the downcast; the restless and the lost – these types have populated folk music since the beginning, and they are Field Report’s cast as well. It is Porterfield’s eye for details – school sweatshirts, crystal-cut tumblers, “pubic piles” of steel wool – that make this album unique and worth returning to. These are the mundane materials of everyday life that we all recognize as the sacred stuff of memory. They make the songs and the characters that inhabit them interesting, real, and like us. For those who have been long-time fans of Porterfield and his previous work, Field Report will feel less like a debut and more like the work of a songwriter hitting his stride. For those who don’t know him yet, it seems likely they’ll find out soon.