richmond fontaine – we used to think the freeway sounded like a river 2009

richmond fontaine


Richmond Fontaine have served up some of the best alt-country/Americana out there during the past decade and to much critical acclaim, especially on this side of the Atlantic, yet still remain some distance away from the kind of vaguely populist recognition attained by the likes of Ryan Adams, Lambchop, or a Wilco with retained twang. And that’s a damned cryin’ shame. Lynch pin of the Portland four-piece is singer/songwriter Willy Vlautin. His songs burst with the vivid imagery and hard hitting, totally compelling storytelling you would expect from a published novelist (with a probable Hollywood film adaptation in the pipeline for one of his books too). Like a crushed Springsteen at his very best, telling thumbnail sketches of keen observation bring characters to life; characters who often appear in both books and songs, and typically inhabit a tragic downbeat world where every wall has peeling paint, all shoes are scuffed, and clothes retain a whiff of stale beer – in short America(na) at its most (heart)broken.

There is a smattering of bristling straight ahead dry-throated rousing alt-country (as in first single “You Can Move Back Here”), but a better representation of the album is more measured and decidedly downbeat in its focus on the seedy side of life. Several of the real gems here are those where Vlautin adopts a practically spoken word approach. Words are to be savoured for their weary sound as well as their meaning, bringing to mind the kind of spellbinding monologues that Van Morrison can deliver transplanted to the far West. The title track has a singing saw (or saw-sounding pedal steel) eerily and memorably warbling the main hook of the chorus over a casino lounge band backing while Vlautin tells the story of a couple enjoying the boho thrill of living in a crumby neighbourhood – until the inevitable happens. With even more restraint, the near perfect vignette “A Letter To The Patron Saint Of Nurses” brings an overwhelming sense of drowsy closure fitting for the final cut – an atmosphere so powerful that it’s a real effort to do anything other than switch off and curl up. The faint glimmer of hope from the final line is just enough to let sleep come easily with the chance of better fortune with a new day.

Embellishment from piano, pedal steel, and on “The Boyfriends”, a marvellous bittersweet flourish of trumpet are all added to the basic mix intermittently and faultlessly. Together with the variations in tempo and song structure the interest hardly drops. “Only “Ruby And Lou” doesn’t quite click into place – a mournful cello not being enough to carry the seemingly cramped lyrics. The best of the narrative songs adopt the first person, and the two very best feature hugely confrontational climaxes. “The Boyfriends” paints an alarming picture of a drunken hook-up (”She said she wasn’t used to drinking / But I could tell she was“) being interupted by the single mom’s son, before flipping in time and perspective to catalogue a succession of ‘uncles’ as witnessed from the singer’s own childhood. A wonderful, wonderful song. “Two Alone” is a fiercely emotional 6 minute mini-opus (there’s been rock operas, but ever an alt-country opera?) where bitterness ebbs and flows in a drama played out between a son and mother (”watching the credit card TV“) echoing the departure of long gone father (”You’re gonna run / You’ll be just like your Dad“), with whom he also never shared a bond (”I don’t like sports and I never will“). More desolation comes with the desperate tale of a reformed alcoholic who finds redemptive focus but ultimate destruction in boxing, and the guitar freek-out in “43? conveying the tension and angry frustration of a man forced into illicit drug manufacturing to make ends meet.

Don’t come here looking for a good time, but do check them out when they tour here in September. This is an intelligent, engrossing, and immediately venerable, yet naturally approachable, album that may well settle down into a being an understated classic. With many a depressing yarn and phrases that stick and tumble around in your mind, perhaps the best and simplest message comes from the single line of the beguiling, almost instrumental, “Watch Out”. “Watch out or your heart’ll be nothing but scars”. Now, like I said, I’ve just got to curl up and sleep. Everything will work out better tomorrow.