Before Chris Porterfield started making music as Field Report, a clever anagram of his surname, the Wisconsin-based songwriter was in DeYarmond Edison, the band famously known for featuring Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and members of Megafaun. Due to the star power that group incubated, Porterfield has been cursed as being “that guy who was in a band with Bon Iver,” but as a songwriter, he’s shed those dogged associations. His debut album, 2012’s Field Report, recorded at Vernon’s April Base Studios in Wisconsin, was full of humble and spacious folk recordings that highlighted a burgeoning and distinctly Midwestern voice. With his sophomore effort, Marigolden, Porterfield manages to stay modest in his scope but with slight improvements that are well worth uncovering.
Sensing he’d be too comfortable recording Marigolden at April Base, Porterfield took his band to the Unicorn Ranch in rural Ontario to record with producer Robbie Lackritz (Feist, Bahamas). The shift in location certainly worked, as the resulting album finds Porterfield refining his songwriting, as well as adding synths and intricate percussion. He also enlists a more fleshed-out backing cast, including longstanding collaborators like drummer Shane Leonard and multi-instrumentalist Ben Lester, along with The Weather Station’s Tamara Lindeman, who provides gorgeous backing vocals on a number of songs. Together, the group complement an impeccably sequenced album with drum machine and synth-heavy slow-burners (“Wings”), rhythmic and hushed folk (“Cups and Cups”), and wandering folk pop (“Home (Leave the Lights On)”). Throughout, Porterfield manages to keep his voice rough, with a subtle twang and earthy warmth.
Porterfield is strongest as a lyricist, cutting down complex and heartbreaking situations with deft and graceful writing. While this was certainly a strength on his debut, it’s even better here, with lines that instantly stick out. “Ambrosia”, which floats by solely through a piano, deals with Porterfield’s struggles with sobriety: “Looking for the win-win in all this wishful drinking, got me thinking that I ought to pray in wordless groans,” he sings. On “Pale Rider”, which deals with the loss of a child, Porterfield sings in an especially devastating verse, “Now you’re cantering crooked and screaming at the wind/ And shooting off flare guns in memory of the kid/ His birthday was yesterday, he would have been six/ Oh my God, I am so sorry.” Porterfield explores grief and loss, but he tackles these subjects with enough tact that it doesn’t seem devastating for the sake of being devastating. This nuance, along with Lindeman’s exceptional backing vocals, makes it one of the album’s highlights.
It takes patient listening to uncover Marigolden’s subtlety, and with few exceptions, the album isn’t immediately accessible, which is a shame, because Porterfield’s lyricism offers quite a few clever and compelling gems. But while this album is an improvement over his debut, Porterfield should take more risks and explore new ways to write hooks. There’s quite the talented songwriter here, but with an album as understated as Marigolden, that can be missed.
Essential Tracks: “Ambrosia”, “Wings”, and “Pale Rider”