Willy Porter has gained international praise as a player, writer, and live performer since his recorded debut in 1990. His road-wisened songcraft, production chops, and musicianship all come together seamlessly on Human Kindness, Porter’s 10th album. He digs in and takes his time building on arrangements with a production approach that serves each song individually while also unifying them thematically. Through this approach the songs collectively radiate and support the central message that, “human kindness is alive and well.” Porter and Co-Producer Kaylen Prescott employ a rich palette of acoustic and electric tones to produce tunes that live symbiotically on the disc. The result is easily one of Porter’s most cohesive and focused studio recordings—an album of musicianship and substance that moves between shadows and light with ease.
Recorded largely in his home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin Human Kindness brings Porter’s long-time band mates Dave Schoepke (Drums & Percussion), Bryan Mir (Bass), Dave Adler (Keys) together with recent additions Carmen Nickerson (Lead & Backing Vocals), and Aaron Gardner (Tenor Sax and Flute). It opens in a brick kiln in India with the driving, modern anti-slavery anthem, “Freedom.” Porter pulls no punches here and delivers a solid rock vocal, while his electric guitar builds and pushes the tune along, culminating in a beautifully ragged solo. Up next, the pop irony that Porter has brought us for years with tunes like “Jesus on the Grille” and “How to Rob a Bank” is in abundance once again with the literate failed relationship tome, “Chippewa Boots.” Sax and flute virtuoso Aaron Gardner doubles Porter’s whistle on “Chippewa” adding to the joy of that hook. Gardner’s solo breaks on both “A Love Like This” and “This Train” are particularly noteworthy for their technical grace, reverence for the song, and soulful musicality. This is truly an album of multi-colored gems. The gritty, warm vocal duet between Porter and Nickerson on “A Love Like This” reveals their natural ease as singing partners, while the smoke of “Walking with the Man” shows Nickerson’s range and unique supporting skills as a singer.
There are some wonderful guest appearances on this recording including the Carpe Diem String Quartet who contribute beautiful string arrangements and performances to both the title track and to the haunting “Walking with the Man.” Jethro Tull’s revered axe-man Martin Barre delivers some incendiary electric guitar to the country flavored, “Try to Forget.” Porter also calls in his fellow Milwaukee natives Paul Cebar and Peter Mulvey to help lift up the whimsical and funky, “Elouise”–a track that seems destined to be a summer festival favorite. Val McCallum, LA-based A-Team session guitarist and producer, provides some electric guitar sizzle to “Chippewa Boots” conjuring flavors of Stephen Bruton and David Lindley.
From beautiful climbing atmospheric moments like “Constellation,” to straight up Midwestern Rock like “My Bird Can Sing,” the songs on Human Kindness seem at peace with themselves and each other. The lyrics are well-rendered and reaching, though never saccharine or disposable. The closing lyric of the Paul Simon-esque, “Roses in the Rain” seems to characterize Porter’s message throughout Human Kindness–that we are collectively more than the sum of our experience: “After we’re dead and gone and no one knows our names, I will give you roses in the rain.”