The Milwaukee-based singer-songwriter turns in a fine effort but still can't top his '95 breakthrough.
Willy Porter is a textbook case of an artist who releases a quintessential, career-defining album and then spends years and years trying to outrun it -- better it, transcend it, convince fans to move beyond it. In Porter's case, that album is Dog Eared Dream, which, after Private Music picked it up in 1995, proved to be a hit among adult contemporary and collegiate neo-hippy crowds, and generated buzz and high-profile support slots for the likes of Tori Amos and the Cranberries. The success, though unlikely, was no accident: Dream presented in Porter a classic singer-songwriter with classical-level chops on the acoustic guitar, a humble Wisconsinite with the wit of a West Coast coffeehouse veteran. But, artistically and commercially, Porter has never fully followed through on Dream's promise.
Not surprisingly, a fair amount of that is down to the record industry, which was starting to be turned on its head just as Porter was breaking. After wrangling with Private Music, Porter didn't release a follow-up until he signed with then-fledgling indie Six Degrees. 1999's Falling Forward was a more mature, atmospheric, and arguably more accomplished record, but the college kids were not impressed, and many of the adults who bought Dog Eared Dream never knew it existed. After a lackluster studio album in 2002, Porter closed out his relationship with Six Degrees with 2006's live album, leaving him to create and release Available Light on his own.
Situations like this often are hailed as opportunities to "get back to basics" and simultaneously exercise a greater degree of artistic freedom. They can also be opportunities for artists to follow their whims, become more vulnerable to their self-indulgent sides, and stumble around in the dark. Available Light falls somewhere in between. It offers hints of what makes Porter so special in the first place, but overall comes off a bit dreary and, most crucially, short on tunes.
Porter is known for taking time during shows to "write" songs on the spot with the audience's participation -- always a highlight of the gig. Available Light is in desperate need of some of that good-humored spontaneity. The album is immaculately produced, crisply played, and perfectly mixed. But it mostly sounds like a guy who's alternately trying too hard or not hard enough. Only a couple tracks feature the effortless tunefulness and charm, musically and lyrically, of Porter's best work.
Galileo, full of dreams and hope … found a new way to see / What was out of sight / By making the most of the available lightPorter sings on the title track, in his smooth, soulful croon, and you get that jolt of wondrous energy that is his greatest gift. Midtempo number "Reveal" takes an unusually pop-rock approach, inviting favorable comparisons to fellow underappreciated singer-songwriter Josh Rouse.
Otherwise, Available Light offers a hodgepodge of nice-sounding music of little distinction. Long a live favorite, "Loose Gravel" comes close to being a trademark Porter song -- but its story of a grown man who returns home to find, "They tore down the Tasty Freeze", borders on cliché. A line like, "I'm still doing time for you / I'm still standing in line for you" (on the tepid "Still Doing Time") crosses that border in disappointing fashion. When Porter gets introspective, though, Available Light gets to be a downer. With Porter's father recently succumbing to terminal illness, that's understandable. The nakedly emotional "Me & My Old Man" is touching, but just barely holds together as a song. Likewise, the heady subject matter of September 9/11 lament "One More September" is either a heartfelt tearjerker or bland melodrama, depending on your mood. Either way, it's probably not the first thing Porter fans hoped for. A trio of instrumentals really does seem like filler, incorporating electronics seemingly at random.
Porter is surely a talented guy, and a guy you love to root for. If you get the chance to see him live, take it. He may yet release an album that makes it possible to talk about his career without mentioning Dog Eared Dream, but Available Light, while not half bad, isn't it.