The Porchistas boldly go where no Jersey band has gone before

porchistas

The cover of the Porchistas album, “Shoot It at the Sun.”

Shoot It at the Sun
The Porchistas

From: Montclair. Right by the Walnut Street train station, to be specific. I mention the neighborhood because everything about the Porchistas is neighborly, and demands to be viewed at a granular level. Alan Smith, the head honcho of the Porchistas, has thrown himself into local public culture as nobody but politicians and certain musicians ever seem to do. Happily, he isn’t running for office. He just wants you to listen to his band, and his friends’ bands, too. Smith’s suburban house has become a genuine arts center complete with a backyard stage, and it speaks well of Montclair that this has been tolerated — and occasionally even celebrated — by the community.

Format: Shoot It at the Sun is a full-length album of 13 songs.

Genre: Folk-rock, with occasional forays into space country and psychedelia. That description makes the Porchistas sound like the Flaming Lips, and there’s definitely some resemblance between Smith’s nimble, playful songwriting and Wayne Coyne’s astral rambles. But the Porchistas also recall a much older tradition of folk-rock — music made by goofy pranksters like the Holy Modal Rounders who hang around in basements, take solos and crack jokes, keep things as loose as possible, and sift through the detritus of popular culture for sociopolitical messages. Like Camper Van Beethoven, the Porchistas are a slightly seedy, neon-lit, open-door establishment that welcomes all kinds of oddballs to the party. That means if Caldwell ska-punks the Defending Champions are at the studio one night, well, sure, let’s throw their horn section on “Radio Balls.” There’s room for the rockabilly of “The Moon Saloon” and the Zappa-isms of “Apolitical Science,” not to mention the backwoods, Richard Davies-style what-the-heck-isms of “White Balloon.” One song has a deadpan narrative voiceover that might have been pinched from an episode of “Land of the Lost,” and another features a full-throated blues-rock guest vocal from Kelly Henneberry, who sounds fired up and ready to knock a fool out. The set closes with a would-be pizzeria singalong — “It’s a No Fit,” arranged like “That’s Amore” and sung in fake Italian accents. In other words, these guys are a bunch of cards. Tuli Kupferberg would have approved.

Arrangements and Sound: This is, by far, the best-sounding Porchistas album. Music like this doesn’t rise or fall on the basis of fidelity, but it’s still nice to be able to identify the instruments and make out everything Smith and his co-writer, guitarist, and right-hand man Adam Falzer are singing. Shoot It at the Sun was recorded by bassist Gerry Griffin — who you may remember as the engineer of those busy, ambitious Meltdowns records of the late ’00s — at his Temple of Tuneage in Verona, and where other Porchistas records felt cushily homemade, this one is borderline (gulp) professional. Griffin and drummer Jon Riordan provide the kind of solid rhythmic support that Smith and Falzer haven’t always had in the past, and the mixes are further decorated by horns, gang backing vocals, Sam Weller’s synthesizers, and accordion on the goofy Italian number. These are big productions, even if they maintain the living-room intimacy of the Porchistas’ early stuff.

What’s this record about? Nearly every song makes reference to space travel and astral phenomena. The operative metaphors on this album ought to be familiar to anybody who has ever seen an old black and white sci-fi movie. Rocketship rides give the writers license to ask big questions about the state of the Earth and our collective responsibility as its steward — not to mention the feelings of alienation and weightlessness so common among earthlings. Sometimes, they don’t even bother to use figurative language: “The Moon Saloon” actually takes place in a Mos Eisley-like bar where Smith’s friends are attempting to get with the android girls. Many of the Porchistas’ stories unfold in that airless interval between terra firma and the big ball in the sky — Smith and Falzer are constantly looking up to the heavens, even when there’s peril right on the ground in front of them. Shoot It at the Sun frontloads its sci-fi, beginning in 2034 with “The Garbage Corridor,” a song that sets the premise and the emotional tone for the rest of the album. Smith’s narrator half-facetiously suggests that the planet ought to confront its trash problem by gathering it up and lobbing it all into the sky. The consequences for using the sun as a giant garbage incinerator are, predictably, apocalyptic, and they arrive in the last verse. We would rather court disaster than change our lifestyles, Smith tells us with a wink; two songs later, he’s identifying not with the consumers left behind but with the trash jettisoned from the globe. Once we start flinging unwanted objects into the void, how tough is it to imagine society doing the same to its unwanted people? So far, so provocative, but midway through Shoot It at the Sun, the Porchistas shift gears. A stretch of four songs — “Spacehead” through “Stranger” — concerns girls, and imagines monogamous coupling as something akin to a close-quarters space flight. These voyages don’t go all that much better than the other ones do, and on “Awesome Solar Rocket Ship,” the narrator likens his travel companion to Kali, who is nobody you’d want to be stuck in a space capsule with. “It’s a No Fit” returns to the garbage corridor and imagines interstellar Italians reconstructing the Coliseum and the Tower of Pisa on a satellite. This plays like a folly at first, but dovetails nicely with the rest of the album’s concerns: Once our horizons expand in all directions, what does tribalism and belonging mean? Where does the relentless exploration of Columbus — and the slash-and-burn colonization that followed in its wake — ultimately lead us but outer space? Or, as Smith and company put it: “Broccoli rabe and homemade wine/culture, identity, tiramisu, Pavarotti tunes/and a couple Ferraris.” It’s all bound to infect the stars someday — if the giant solar flare doesn’t get us first.

The singers: Smith and Falzer have always loved to raise their voices together, but it took them awhile to get the knack for close harmony. Now that they have it down, boy howdy are they employing what they’ve learned. Nearly every song on Shoot It at the Sun features many singers going at the storytelling at once: Smith’s, Falzer’s, who knows?, maybe the neighbors, too. “A Piece a Junk” aims for the weary collective grace of the Dead circa “Brokedown Palace;” “Garbage Corridor” ends with an echoed chorus of voices; “Spacehead” bathes Smith’s lead in muffled Southern Rock harmonies; given an assist from singers Catie Friel and Kelly, “Moon Saloon” flirts, brazenly, with the Andrews Sisters. Then there’s “Radio Balls,” which is just a gang chant set to blaring horns, and a gleeful bounce off of the walls of a rubber room. This comes after three slower songs that might make an uninitiated listener doubt whether the Porchistas can shout their heads off. Lesson: never doubt this.

The music: A couple of years ago, the Porchistas made ripples in Jersey with a grimy, rudimentary blues-rock song called “Zombie Jesus.” The performance wasn’t exactly a Rockschool masterclass, and it sounded like it had been recorded in a workboot — but that was part of its charm, and it came loaded with humor and abrasive personality. If the Porchistas had done nothing but resurrect Zombie Jesus for the rest of their run, I doubt their fans would have minded very much. Instead, Shoot It at the Sun feels like the work of an overhauled band. The musicians haven’t exactly gotten tight, because fascist precision is anathema to guys as freewheeling as these. Instead, they simply sound together, like activists arm in arm in a mass movement, or beer cans hanging in a six-pack. The newfound confidence of the rhythm section gives Smith and Falzer the platform to launch their interstellar excursions and descents into cartoonish madness like “Moon Saloon.” Moreover, Falzer continues to improve as a six-string soloist, and Weller struts his stuff on the electric piano, especially on “Radio Balls.” Even the band’s biggest fans would not have described the Porchistas’ music as pretty, and they still wouldn’t. But they’ve cleaned up Zombie Jesus and given him a shave, and maybe slapped some cologne on his pallid cheeks. Never before has he been so ghoulishly presentable.

The songs: Restless. Many of the tracks begin slow and brooding, and build to climaxes — “Grand Lilliputian” crests with Falzer’s best solo yet recorded, while he and Smith stand aside and let Henneberry commandeer “A Piece a Junk” for her own combative purposes. The relationship songs in the middle of the album are slightly more straightforward, but only slightly: “Apolitical Science” switches up the beat twice, see-sawing between ramshackle country and something I can only describe as Montclair front-porch swing, and “Awesome Solar Rocketship” resembles grownup folk-rock exactly as Zappa’s writing on Freak Out! resembled then-contemporary pop. Mostly, the Porchistas give the listener the impression that the rug can be pulled out at any moment, and that they’d better not settle comfortably into a groove. Smith and his cohorts stand ready to bop the unwary over the head with the great truncheon of chance.

porchistas

The back cover of “Shoot It at the Sun.”

What else connects this record to the band’s prior work? Let’s give a moment to Nicole Esclamado, the designer of the cover art. I’m not sure if she did the artwork for prior Porchistas projects, but her line-drawing (and possibly pencil-colored) illustration of an anthropomorphized, puffed-cheeked sun spitting out ribbon flares is a perfect match for the band’s aesthetic. My favorite Esclamado illustration on the package is the one the Porchistas stuck on the back of the CD and the front of the lyric booklet. Here, Mister Sun is looking askance, with an expression that hovers between exasperation and resignation, as he prepares for the jerks he’s been warming to lob a bunch of junk in his grill. His impatience is pardonable. He’s been staring down at the silly human race for centuries.

What’s not so good? At 13 songs, Shoot It at the Sun feels overlong. The Porchistas probably could have dispensed with “Cosmic Jelly,” a reiteration of the main theme followed by a guitar solo that tips further into psychedelic excess than the rest of the album is willing to go. The kickoff track stretches for nearly seven minutes, and it’s followed by two other freighter-speed interstellar journeys that do not take the most economic route from Planet A to Planet Z. Mind you, I’d never wish an editor on a band as lively and imaginative as the Porchistas. I’m just pointing out that this rocketship ride takes awhile to achieve escape velocity.

Recommended? The funny thing about the Porchistas is that they didn’t have to improve to be beloved. The band has already cemented its status as a cornerstone of Essex County independent music, and  Smith is recognized as an ambassador and a scene-builder all over Weird New Jersey. No matter what he did next, he was going to get applauded for it. Instead of repeating himself, he tightened the ship ever so slightly and blasted off into unknown quadrants of the galaxy. How often does this happen with veteran Jersey musicians? (Consider that the Feelies, as great as they are, have essentially been making the same record since the late ’80s.) With Shoot It at the Sun, the Porchistas have taken a step forward as songwriters, as instrumentalists, and as conceptualists, too. Put it down to the magic of Montclair — a much, much stranger place than it first appears to be.

3 thoughts on “The Porchistas boldly go where no Jersey band has gone before

  1. Pingback: Review: Soundtracks are the setlists at APMFF show (with gallery) - NJArts.netNJArts.net

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