PORCHLIGHT SMOKER 2
2012 – Dead Reckoning
It’s always difficult to judge a band/artist on their first album. It could be that they haven’t yet developed a style, or if it is good, just a fluke maybe? I’ve seen Porchlight Smoker live on quite a few occasions and they are tremendous in that situation. I reviewed their debut album on this site last year and awarded it four stars and can remember thinking at the time this confident and excellent album was going to be difficult to follow. If I was correct about that, it certainly doesn’t show on this tremendous recording, which rather than being caught in that ‘difficult second album’ syndrome is easily as good as their terrific debut. Obviously when they went in to the studio to record this album they knew what to expect and were more comfortable with what could be achieved. As on their debut half the songs are band originals, the other half covers of other peoples songs, although ‘covers’ does this talented band a disservice, with them adapting those songs to their own style rather than just copying the originals.
The band lineup is the same as on their debut album, Scott Smith on vocals, lap steel guitar, harmonica, clarinet, banjo and guitar, Scott Warman on vocals, double bass and percussion, Fred Gregory, also on vocals plus mandolin, guitar, organ, piano and slide guitar with Steve bell on vocals, banjo, guitar, penny whistle, lamellophone and mandolin. Not difficult to see that they are a talented band of multi instrumentalists as evidenced by the scope of their ‘roots music’ that includes strains of British folk, old timey, a little bluegrass, even at times a blues feel. In effect they are a classic string band but with a few additional instruments that develop and expand their sound, plus a little percussion but with Scott Warman’s driving bass laying down a beat, drums would be superfluous.
Not only does the band include three excellent lead vocalists but they also encompass different styles with both Fred and Scott’s veering towards different areas of Americana (Scott actually is American, so hardly surprising!) whereas Steve despite blending perfectly has a classic British (Scottish!) folk music style. Fred Gregory’s vocals seem stronger and more comfortable this time around with an unaffected hillbilly twang that perfectly suits his tone and the bands style.
As happens with high quality musicians, those disparate vocal styles blend with the just as excellent instrumentation to exhibit an approach that helps explain where country music comes from and where the old British Isles immigrants were headed with their folk music. In all probability there was never any conscious decision to blend the various branches and influences into a particular style, it simply took place through osmosis. There is no ‘missing link’ in roots music, just a large and ever growing selection of albums that help to explain the history of that stylistic blending and this is most certainly one of those albums. It’s almost as if after decades of separation, the folk music from both the US and UK have started to blend again in recent times to highlight their development rather than keeping that geographic separation going. This is fairly obviously made easier by the world wide web which enables a far greater exchange of ideas and gives us all access to an endless supply of music from the early days of recording up to the modern age, enabling far greater numbers of people to hear where ‘roots music’ and it’s offshoots came from, at least as far back as the early twentieth century. With digital home recording making experimentation easier the development of roots music has never looked to have more potential.
Album opener Old Bray Road, sets the scene nicely with a haunting steel guitar on a really
good easy going song with excellent vocals from Fred on this self written song, plus a lovely banjo sound, chiming mandolin and the addition throughout of a quite dominant lamellophone (Jews harp
to you and me!) to really give the song a tremendous atmosphere. This is followed by a lead vocal from Scott on Hey Maya, a song that has a high lonesome sound with it’s chiming mandolin and evocative harmonica plus some beautiful band harmonies on the chorus and a really nice bass thrum! The traditional Haul Away Joeis a good example of the way they blend styles on a song with vocals by Steve, steeped in British isles music, but thanks to their instrumentation treatment that includes
a fairly dominant mandolin the musical forms blend seamlessly to produce a gorgeous finished article. On another of Fred’s songs, Water Into Sand, there is a lovely resonator guitar sound with haunting harmonica, then banjo and bass come in with more power on a really good story of someone who is in a place he really doesn’t want to be, eventually achieving his aim, thanks to a dissolute life style compliments of a sad childhood! A really powerful story enhanced by by the instrumentation. There is also an excellent version of Fred’s Welcome To The Family, his paean to a ‘problem family,’ that is also on the excellent new album by Hatful Of Rain’ of which Fred is a member. It includes a really nice banjo and steel guitar sound and despite the songs serious themes,
there is a certain amount of tongue in cheek on this excellent ‘murder and suicide ballad.’ It would be so easy to highlight every performance on this excellent album, but space dictates the inclusion of just one more! This is Steve Bell’s beautiful folk song Flowers On The Sea. It’s gorgeously evocative steel guitar intro starts the song off with a haunting atmosphere on a beautiful, in many ways countrified, British folk song that tells the story of the sinking of the H.M.S Hood by the Bismark
from the point of view of one of the 1500 killed in that wartime tragedy. It’s a highly evocative tale that really should become a classic British folk song with Scott’s steel guitar giving the song a perfect otherworldly atmosphere and Steve’s vocals as well as band harmonies never sounding better.
An ideal note to finish off a review of an album that is not only musically, a tremendous album but is also hugely entertaining. I don’t usually give four stars to an album on which the artist/s have written only half of the songs, but as with their debut the performances and balance of instrumentation are so good it is easily justified.