Music

Review: Field Report’s Brake Light Red Tide Breaks New Ground for Milwaukee’s Chris Porterfield

On “Decision Day,” the stellar opener to Field Report’s autumnal sophomore album Marigolden from 2014, Chris Porterfield, the Milwaukee-based songwriter, sings “Take your time and let the tide pull you out to sea / Take your time and let the tide pull you away from me”

That sense of the wider world crashing through personal barriers is ripe throughout the songwriter’s narrative catalogue, and it continues with the latest release, the evocative, beautifully restrained Brake Light Red Tide, now available courtesy of Fellesskap Records. In this album’s poetic universe panic announces its arrival by flapping its wings, and the moon smiles at its admirers while pulling high tide around their feet.

It’s an album of cycles, both relational and seasonal, and an excellent collection of new compositions that both carry the torch of Porterfield’s boldly empathic work and launches the band into newly focused heights. With 7 songs clocking in at 32 minutes, it is Field Report’s briefest offering, but the density of the production and the lyrical precision allow the album to resonate well beyond its runtime.

Consider “Peoria,” the first song from Brake Light Red Tide, and one that is emblematic of all things that Field Report has come to mean—expansive melodies anchored by lyrics that manage to feel both fleet-footed and deep, a blend of traditional folk’s well wornness and an exacting novelist’s turn of phrase.

“Peoria” is a song of quotidian details; in it the narrator’s lost keys stand in for the anxieties of waking life— mental health, relationships, economic woes— and as he searches the cracks in the foundation are revealed. When he finds the keys, he wonders:

“Who rejoices when the lost is found / The loser or the lost thing”

The song also contains the first mentions of themes that Brake Light Red Tide continually circles around—darkness, depression, and devastating self-doubt. Throughout the record, Porterfield seems to be teasing apart the moment before a plunge; musically the album cascades from warbling, distorted guitars to sparkling keys, driven by fat drums and ghostly harmonies, all positioned on the edge of spilling over.

Stepping into the unknown, whether willingly or by force, is a central thread of Field Report’s previous three albums—Porterfield’s empathy as a songwriter is one of his finest gifts, and it is used to create stories that are sonically surprising, not only in their three dimensional sketches of everyday lives, but in their chosen narrative voice.

“Fergus Falls” from the band’s self-title 2012 debut, being narrated by a pregnant woman wrestling with leaving her abusive lover, the aforementioned “Decision Day,” which is positioned on the morning of some unnamed importance, and “Never Look Back,” containing the line “Forgiveness does not excuse / It’s to prevent all the others from destroying you,” are all songs that feel decidedly told from the female perspective.

It’s these sort of lived in stories that give the albums their tactile presence and emotional engagement; real people exposed for all their failings, hopes, regrets, and dreams.

As a live performer, Porterfield is a serious presence—I caught his opening set for Joe Pug at the Aragon Ballroom in 2015, and the song that stuck with me was “Michelle,” a sweaty, paranoid tale of fatigue and doomed love from Marigolden. Porterfield delivered it with a ferocious snarl, staring out into the audience through a mane of tangled hair, clutching the guitar like a life preserver.

On record he’s joined by a revolving door of collaborators that both support his vision and expand the soundscape—the first album’s vast electronica was traded for the country western feel of Marigolden, which gave way to the bright, explosive sounds of Summertime Songs. Brake Light Red Tide lands somewhere in between them all— an album of orchestral ambience that is at once bigger and more focused than its predecessors.

Listening to a Field Report song evokes a sense of creative non-fiction— it should come as no surprise that Porterfield trained as a journalist in undergrad; he often uses time and place to establish a jumping off point from which to interrogate his characters’ mindset.

Many songs are set in the Midwest—“Fergus Falls” name-drops the titular Minnesota town, “Occupied Mind” from 2018’s Summertime Songs pulls in on the Hiawatha Amtrak, “Peoria” laments the same city in Illinois—and more than a few take place in Porterfield’s adopted home of Milwaukee (on Field Report he says of the city “I’ve seen no place with the capacity to hoard shame like us.”)

But the songs are not always limited by such strict geographical limits. On “Puget Sound,” one of the new album’s best compositions, Porterfield confronts his own waywardness and isolation while facing the enormous Washington coastline—“Been landlocked so long / When I see the ocean / I don’t know how to look around.”

And consider the lyrics from “Enchantment,” the closing track on Marigolden, which opens with:

“Easter morning in New Mexico / The Son has risen on another day / Blasting grace on telephone poles / Rows of crosses rows of trebuchets”

Before shifting into:

“Cashed in my thirty day chip for a kiss / In an air conditioned bar in Truth or Consequences / With a game show on the stakes high enough to risk / It didn’t taste like I remembered it”

Autobiography, it would seem. Littered throughout Field Report’s catalogue are declarations like this— of addictions, of anxieties, of shortcomings. And while Porterfield has managed moments of startling honesty before, on Brake Light Red Tide he seems to pass into new territory of confession.

The album’s closer “Begin to Begin” charts the first moments of a depressive episode; it’s a solemn, introspective bit of poetry in which Porterfield coolly admits:

“That’s when I zone out and disappear and it has begun / My darkness comes in darkness and it stays til it is done”

Later, at a bar he has retreated to “just before last call,” Porterfield begs another round, and the bartender retorts:

“Dude your idea of fun always feels like breakdown”

And then comes the album’s closing lyric:

“Text my therapist two four six am / Hey it’s Chris it’s happening again / I’ll take the first hour you can get me in / Begin to begin to begin to begin”

It’s the essential line of the record, and perhaps the most poignant in Porterfield’s catalogue; sustained by a simple guitar line, it rings out across the production like a sigh of relief.

The overall impression of Brake Light Red Tide is one of surrender, to forces both inside and outside of our control. It’s a wonder that the album has come to us during this time of collective stasis, of uncertainty and fatigued frustration— it seems Porterfield can add “fortune-teller” to his artistic CV.

Brake Light Red Tide is available now on all streaming platforms, and to purchase on Bandcamp, from Fellessakp Records. 

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