Some shadows are particularly difficult to escape. If you happen to be a folksy troubadour with a penchant for soul-searching and you call the American Midwest home, good luck avoiding Bon Iver comparisons. If you’re Chris Porterfield, things are that little bit trickier. Field Report, the brainchild of Porterfield (and a cute anagram) is a project tethered to its leader’s past, Porterfield having cut his teeth in now-defunct Wisconsin outfit DeYarmond Edison, itself led by one Justin Vernon. It’s not exactly fair that Vernon should play a role – albeit an indirect one – in Field Report’s narrative, but them’s the breaks.
That said, direct comparisons shouldn’t really apply for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that Porterfield is more of a Tom Russell type, mixing sunny Americana vibes with melancholy reflection. There are shades of Springsteen, too, as Porterfield envisions his nation through blue-collar eyes, most notably on ‘Chico the American’, a thoughtful song hurt by clumsy lines like “Hey, hey, Doris Day” and “Please, please, Dom de Louise” that only serve to hamper good intentions. Field Report – recorded at Vernon’s April Base studios with full band – is rich in good intentions. Porterfield’s progression from solo artist to seven-strong collective may provoke further Bon Iver mentions but it’s a decision that proves beneficial. ‘Fergus Falls’, an old solo track, here presented with something of a facelift, is that rare thing – an artist embracing sacrifice in the studio, adding depth. ‘The Year of the Get You Alone’ is cut from the same cloth, shuffling along pleasantly thanks to a subtle arrangement, though neither track really hits like it should.
Restraint plays its own part as Field Report unfolds, to the point that it quickly becomes a fault. ‘I Am Not Waiting Anymore’ has all the hallmarks of the confessional country anthem, right down to the hoary old clichés. Porterfield, if anything, isn’t bitter enough, instead content to languish in tired lines about writing cynical screenplays and being wrong all the time. In one sense, it’s a perfect microcosm of Field Report as a whole. Strictly speaking, there’s nothing new here. There’s decent songwriting, admirable choices and the occasional experimental flourish that you may not expect from the genre but it’s all too familiar, forgotten by the fade out.
There’s a moment during the plaintive ‘Taking Alcatraz’ where, sadly, it’s pretty impossible not to think of Bon Iver and what Justin Vernon or someone of his invention may have done instead. As the song builds brightly with smart guitar interplay and subtle piano, Porterfield shifts his melody a little, catching momentum, delivering the start of what should be a home run crescendo. That it immediately abandons this path in favour of a generic heart-on-the-sleeve half-yell is as unfortunate as it is unsurprising. On the basis of his debut, Porterfield lacks both the imagination to craft compelling stories and the voice with which to elevate basic ones. Field Report is easy on the ear, but entirely unremarkable. Given the company he once kept and now seeks to challenge, it’s a distinction Porterfield can ill afford.