This is a hard album to listen to. This is easily the hardest review I've had to write. If you're not familiar with Chris Porter (and you might be -- I've written about Some Dark Holler, his project with the Pollies, and his solo album over the past few years), in some ways you're in luck because this is absolutely the best album of his career. But it's also his last. In what is easily every touring artist's worst nightmare, Porter and his bandmate Mitchell Vandenberg were killed in a car crash right outside of Baltimore. It's hard listening to this album without wondering what trajectory it could have sent Porter on. It's hard to listen to this album without the songs taking on a deeper meeting than Porter himself might have intended.
If Porter were still alive, here's probably what I would have written. There's no doubt that he felt proud of this album. Produced by Will Johnson of Centromatic and featuring players like John Calvin Abney (who's been supporting John Moreland), Shonna Tucker of Drive-by-Truckers, and the Mastersons, the album represents Porter's past and present -- a musical family that spans Austin, where he had recently settled, and his troubadour career. Porter's vocal performance shows confidence and swagger that just wasn't quite there in his previous work. While the themes of his song should be well-worn to anyone who listens to this type of music -- dead end towns, dead end bars, and dead end musical careers -- these songs have a depth to them that approaches Porter's peers and heroes: Earle, Isbell, Moreland. And I would've ended it here saying that all of the people who are cooler than me should sit up and pay attention, because this is the album where Porter hit his stride and was about to climb the mountain.
Instead, I can say that if Don't Go Baby hadn't caught the critical acclaim it should have, it would have been a shame. Instead, it's difficult to listen to Porter's frustration and amused resignation without these songs just feeling dark. What distinguishes this album from his others is Porter's sense of place -- maybe, Don't Go Baby suggests -- this is how it just is and, actually, Porter seems at peace with that. The last song on the album (I'm not sure if this was Porter's choice) should be familiar to anyone who listens to this genre. "East December" is about the rough-and-tumble life of a touring musician and how Porter wouldn't have it any other way. If that isn't a fitting capstone to anybody's work, I don't know what is.