This is going to be a fucking doozy.
At what point do you separate the art from the artist? It can be a tough question and one I battle with myself.
For instance, I like the works of H.P. Lovecraft but it always bothers me that he was a colossal racist and saw people of different color and lower economic status as subservient beings; almost non-human. Which is weirdly ironic when you consider that his literary works are about us mere mortals discovering that we’re merely insignificant creatures to his Eldritch gods that exist beyond the plains of our own reality. Beings who have existed for eons and whom will continue to live on after we die and wither away. I have similar thoughts about another personal favourite work of mine, American Psycho, both Brett Easton-Ellis’s highly controversial book and Mary Harron’s terrific 2000 film adaption - both of which I love. Despite American Psycho being a mixture of violently absurd horror and dark, bizarre black comedy, and while also being wildly open to interpretation, I cannot go past the extremely dark content that it deals with nor the misogynistic undertones that anti-hero/protagonist Patrick Bateman exhibits. I also struggle to watch a Roman Polanski movie because I can't wipe from my head the knowledge of him drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl in 1977 and fleeing the US to avoid criminal charges, the absolute piece of shit.
But okay, look, I'm getting ahead of myself here. That’s books and films; we’re here to talk about music.
I know many people that can disassociate from a musician's actions, personality and beliefs and can just enjoy the music in question. I have friends who enjoy the music of many old-school Norwegian black metal artists, yet who also deplore the actions of certain individuals from that scene, such as Burzum AKA the utter nutcase, Varg Vikernes. I myself used to love Lostprophets right up until, well… you know, and now listening to that band's music makes me feel utterly sick. However, while nowhere near as extreme as Ian Watkins or Jim Hesketh, and while just sitting above that Steve Klein case, we have Jake McElfresh, more commonly known as the American acoustic, singer-songwriter Front Porch Step.
In late 2014, McElfresh, 23 then, was accused of sexual misconduct by former partners of his. Young girls - some of who were under 18 at the time too - that he had romantic relationships with; connections that were cultivated due to them being fans of his music. These allegations brought to light his mental, emotional and even physical manipulative nature towards these young women via online avenues, phone calls, texts, and in some cases, in-person contact. More and more allegations and community pressure mounted against him, mainly via Tumblr and across the social media sphere (yes, I know, not quite the most concrete of sources), then media outlets everywhere and other bands in the scene pounced on the issue, shit hit the fan for him even more so, and a plethora of discussions occurred about the blurred line between artists and their fans.
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This came at a time in this decade where we were seeing Watkins being jailed for the planned rape of an infant child, As I Lay Dying's Tim Lambesis imprisoned for trying to have his own wife killed, and Neck Deep’s Lloyd Roberts and Set It Off bassist Austin Kerr leaving their respective bands to battle sexual misconduct and harassment allegations from fans - the former of whom was actually acquitted. As for McElfresh, this controversy saw the Front Porch Step name removed from the Pure Noise Records roster, his 2015 Warped Tour appearances being shit canned bar one, Stray From The Path writing ‘D.I.E.P.I.G.’ about him in particular, Senses Fail's Buddy Nielsen saying that his “music privilege” should be revoked, and so much more. Now, keep in mind, McElfresh was never fully convicted by a court over these allegations (though a full court proceeding should have happened.) It's also worth noting that he took to court a former girlfriend, Autumn Lavis, who spoke out about his sexual misconduct with these other young women, where his charges of defamation and slander against Lavis were eventually (and thankfully) dropped. McElfresh also made statement after statement vaguely addressing how he'd soon fully address these serious allegations, which all eventually arrived with this long status update in April 2015. [A greater comprehensive timeline of this saga can be found here.]
Following that lengthy statement, I thought we'd seen the last of Front Porch Step Away From The Young Girls. But no.
[caption id="attachment_1091043" align="aligncenter" width="760"] Front Porch Step, 2015.[/caption]
After more or less two years away from the public's eye, and perhaps hoping that he's been forgotten and that people don’t care anymore (he actually disputes this claim in 'Stones', where he takes aim at his many detractors), Front Porch Step's second album dropped last week on Friday, March 31st. Titled ‘I Never Loved Before I Found You’, this is his first release since 2014’s decent ‘Whole Again’ EP, and by listening to each new track as they were released drip-fed style, I was more than ready to tackle this record from the get-go.
So first off, disregarding wider context here for a second and while I don't completely hate this release, this album just isn't good. But at the very least, it's a far more in-depth telling of his vast personal misconduct and rocky musical journey than his weak 2016 single, ‘Help Me Hurt’.
Secondly and perhaps most obviously, ‘I Never Loved Before I Found You’ is thematically and lyrically about the past two and a bit years of McElfresh’s life; from the widespread vitriolic crucifixion that he received from the media, peers, fans and punters alike to the deep self-hatred that he rightfully inflicted upon himself. This album is essentially an apology letter - or at least, his attempt at an apology letter - put to tape. What with lyrics such as "I know that I've made mistakes/and I’m aware I’ve told some lies/I’m sorry that I broke your heart/You’ll be glad to know that I broke mine" from the song, 'Stones'. But in this particular example, he then contradicts and undermines himself in the very same song with lyrics of, "So you can go burn all my records/and put me six feet in the ground/There's still a flame that burns forever in my heart/Your hatred just cannot put out".
Again, this record is McElfresh trying (the key word there) to make amends - at times, half-assedly so - with not just himself, but also the music community, asking that we all give this mid-twenty-something bloke from Ohio a second chance. Some will and have indulged him in that second chance, others not at all. But I mean, what else was he going to do here? Write a record about how he'd do it - "it" meaning starting toxic relationships with his young, teenage female fans - all over again? Fuck no! That would be career suicide, even more so than what he's already committed. He also couldn't just sweep this all under the rug by discussing other topics because going radio silent never turns out well in these instances.
However, if we are to take this new ten-track release at its sole face value, it does seem like he's gotten some help. Whether that be from actual therapy sessions,long and deep personal reflection, him reevaluating and rekindling his relationship with Christ and bringing God even further into his personal life, or maybe all the above. Now, his faith gets highly detailed on this LP, namely in the acoustic finale 'Worship From A Wretch' (“Jesus, help me worship you because you are/Teach me discipline and let it steer my heart”) as well as the actually decent mid-album reverie ‘Quick To Run’ (“I heard your words when I was just a boy/so there's no excuse for the path that I chose/So when I’m on my knees/out in front of your gates/then I won’t make excuses when that gate is closed.”). But while McElfresh may very well be a “Christian man” now - a topic this album will bring up at nearly every single step of away - saying that you’ve found God or ushered the Lord into your life in order to attain pity, forgiveness or absolution from critics is the equivalent of a criminal pleading insanity to weasel their way out.
Oh, and "defiantly" stating that “If they only knew/about the things that I’ve gone through/They wouldn’t wish I’d burn in hell” in the title track – among many other such haphazard woe-is-me lines - doesn’t make you sound apologetic nor will it soften people’s already harsh opinions of you. Just some advice there, mate.
[caption id="attachment_1091245" align="aligncenter" width="760"] Front Porch Step, 2017. God, that's one dark fucking promo photo.[/caption]
Anyway, stylistically, this record is not a far cry from his previous releases. This sophomore record (people say that’s a cringy term but fuck it, I like it) is just more of his mid-tempo acoustic, laid-back country/folk tunes all with easily digestible indie-rock moments sprinkled throughout. For acoustic guitars are always present in these ten songs. Along with soft, almost bluesy electric guitar riffs along with bright reverberant slides and licks, simple bass lines, and simplistic yet lively drumming all acting as the musical crux for his open-diary lyrics and gruff tinged voice. Y'know, just the very things that helped him garner solid popularity in the first place.
Musically speaking, though, this is a very expected record for Front Porch Step too. As in there's nothing that new here in terms of his regular instrumentation and approach, save for the delicate organ parts on the emotionally conflicted 'Perfect Man' (whose choruses just awkwardly stumble into view), the mournful strings on ‘Quick To Run’ and the dynamic ‘Rewind’, and those short violin parts on the slow and hazy ‘Wrong Roads’. Other than that, it's pretty much business as usual instrumentally and tonally for this Ohio musician/potentially registered sex offender.
Production and mixing wise, this is a very "real" record – again in keeping with his sound - and it suitably lacks overdone ‘studio shine’ in order to make the songs feel more natural and honest, and you know what? I'll give the dude that; he nailed the necessary aesthetic for his sound here. (That snare delay on ‘Quick To Run’ is a real nice touch too.) I do also enjoy the album’s use of dynamics to make these songs flow well – lyrical content and context aside – but man , that's just not enough to save this record.
I suppose if there is a standout song that I could point at here (and even then, a song that I wouldn't listen to it leisurely outside of this incredibly long review), it would have to be the second-to-last track, 'So Help Me God'. This driving, upbeat folky track – which also features the album’s best chorus melody too – seems like a real plead for help from McElfresh to be saved and the lyrics show him pondering his fate due to his previous discrepancies, to put it lightly. I really enjoyed this song... but then I suddenly remembered that this song is actually five years old now and the lyrics in this new version haven't been altered; the only change is that now full band instrumentation backs up this once solely acoustic track. I get that the whole 'I'm a monster who needs saving' delivery worked back in 2012 to help his music reach into the hearts of many and that it most certainly has heavy context now, but goddamnit, the phoned-in nature of its inclusion here undercuts the song and the record.
[caption id="attachment_1091045" align="aligncenter" width="760"] Front Porch Step, 2017, sans forehead. [/caption]
For all of the politics and the incredibly messy predicaments McElfresh found and still finds himself in, and while I may cop flak for this, I do think that this is a very brave record. Even though I think he would have been better served just staying dormant from the music scene. It's brave in the sense that he actually wrote, recorded it and is now releasing it DIY because the collective shitstorm of yesteryear will and have been summoned up again with this new release. It’s glad to see that the Internet never really forgets.
Now, whether or not McElfresh is actually remorseful about his actions and whether or not this record comes from a truly genuine place is difficult for me to say. I mean, it feels like he is sorry and that this is indeed coming from an honest place, but as I said before, what other option would he have right now but an attempt at public repentance? To (regretfully) play devil's advocate for a quick second, this guy's music and lyrics have always been honest and open so why would he stop now - for the sake of us pitying and forgiving him? Maybe, but that was also before the mere mention of his name created skin crawling feelings. Maybe if he was donating funds made off of this album to charities or if he was offering to educate newer, younger bands about how not to go about handling their popularity and how they shouldn't interact with fans and using himself as the example, this release would be another story. But whatever the integrity of this record is and whatever I or other people come to think of it, that's apparently never going to stop McElfresh from releasing music - whether via Front Porch Step or another project. As a recent Tweet from him states:
I'm releasing music to the public. I have every right & capability of doing that just like you have a right to an opinion.
— FRONT PORCH STEP (@Frontporchstep) March 23, 2017
Oh. Oh, dear. Bullet, please meet the foot.
Despite how he's conducted himself with this record, there are still many that defend and praise McElfresh for his music and for his courageous continuation; with some imploring him to "ignore the bullshit". The album's current iTunes reviews really show the polar opposite opinions this record has and will continue to generate.
There's this one-star review by user poppunklegs, saying, "pedophiles [sic] shouldn't get recognition" and this now removed comment, "You used the music you made to get to underaged girls. You should not be allowed to release music ever again in your life. All your hard work as a musician should be trashed forever" by user woeisdead echoing the sentiments of many. On the flip side, there's this far more positive review saying, "Glad your back! This album got me in my feels already" from user etnick949, exclusively honing in on the music like other Front Porch Step fans are doing with his return. And yes, this guy still has plenty of fans left, as the recently turned on YouTube comment sections on his videos now show. (Comments are disabled for his songs under the Pure Noise Records, mind you - they ain't having none of that mess.)
As for my original question, with ‘I Never Loved Before I Found You’ I tried to separate the art from the artist for this review, but simply couldn't. For this piece of art is so deeply embedded within the despicable actions and the resulting mindset and situation the artist is now currently in, so much so that separating these two entities just didn't work. Yes, McElfresh quite obviously fucked up BIG TIME, and make no mistake, he will be hounded about his past actions for the rest of his career - however long that continues to be. Do I think that when someone makes a mistake - no matter how small or large - that they should be crucified for the rest of their life? Honestly, no, not really, as things aren’t always so black and white. But I'm conflicted here as while I sometimes do believe in rehabilitation and in bridge re-building, Jesus Christ does this subpar record leave an awful taste in my mouth morally. I also can't imagine what the young women he was involved with are feeling and going through right now.
As I said earlier, this record is all about second chances. Vans Warped Tour's Kevin Lyman once said of Front Porch Step in 2015 that “Half of these people in this parking lot, if they didn't get a second chance in life, they wouldn't be here on tour." And I respect that sentiment, I really do, but McElfresh's prior actions, of which I don’t condone, sour his musical output greatly. If any other artist released ‘I Never Loved Before I Found You’, I think we’d be looking at a much higher score here - at least 60-70/100 at the most - but no other artist did release this record. No, Front Porch Step did, and that name, that context, and that face behind the music is what weights this record down.
Besides, when you break it down, nothing of any real value was lost here as this record is really by the numbers for this genre and isn't that good, anyway.
Some reading this will wonder why I've given Front Porch Step publicity by talking about his new woefully mediocre as fuck record. Well, first off, I covered the new Falling In Reverse album last week and would like to remain nothing if not consistent. (Plus, that band has a frontman who didn’t get romantically involved with his underage fans.) Secondly, as I mentioned above, I do try and separate the art from the artist, unsuccessfully here I admit, as this isn't a Tumblr blog but a music media outlet. As such, we talk about music - no matter how bloody good, merely average or how fucking bad it is – regardless of the artists real life actions. Of course, if you didn’t listen to a musician or a band because of their dodgy business decisions, creepy shit they've done and the skeletons that most certainly exist in their closet, you're iTunes and Spotify playlists would be very fucking small.
However, even so, McElfresh’s actions are a great black stain upon ‘I Never Loved Before I Found You’. And sadly, very little has changed from the 20th-century iteration of the music industry, with the statutory rape cases from older artists such as David Bowie to Chuck Berry's underage girl controversy remain a symptom of the music industry’s wider issues and how it deals with its artists and the women within it. For once again, a popular musician abused their position of power to do something that they knew they shouldn’t be doing - even if those girls consensually engaged with him at first, that still doesn't make his actions or how he treated them right nor does it make me at all empathetic towards him.
Ultimately, Front Porch Step's new album is a 3 out of 10 acoustic/indie record that you could get from a dozen other better artists without all of the bullshit and controversial baggage, all from a 0 out of 10 individual.
2. Perfect Man
4. Quick To Run
6. I Never Loved Before I Found You
7. Wrong Roads
9. So Help Me God
10. Worship From A Wretch
'I Never Loved Before I Found You' is out now.
Sorry for all of the hyperlinks here; the wider context and sources were all very necessary I felt. Now, I wonder if Anonymous will get involved with this guy releasing music again. Oh well, in any case, fuck this guy.