One of the many highlights of this year’s End of the Road Festival was finally getting to see Richmond Fontaine live, showcasing songs from their new album We Used To Think The Freeway Sounded Like a River, their eighth to date.
On 2007’s Thirteen Cities, the Portland-based band took a sonic journey south, augmenting their Americana sound with flourishes of brass and occasional Mariachi rhythms, thanks in part to guest spots from Calexico. Lead singer and songwriter Willy Vlautin focused his authorial gaze on the lives of the marginalised or working class folk of the Southern bordertowns and badlands: stark, dusty vignettes of the everyday, informed by Vlautin’s owned troubled past and keen eye for character. Since 2007, he’s published two acclaimed novels that explored similar themes, written in a engagingly minimalist style that recalls Raymond Carver and Cormac McCarthy.
For this new album, released back in August, the band have headed for ostensibly more familiar territory, powerful country-rock influenced by Uncle Tupelo and The Replacements like ‘Lonnie’ and the fierce ’43’, alongside extended narratives that are some of the best Vlautin has written yet, including heartbreaking, spare snapshots of intimate moments between lovers on the title track and ‘Ruby and Lou’ and a nurse reaching the end of her tether on closer, ‘A Letter To The Patron Saint of Nurses’.
These story songs play a large part in distinguishing Richmond Fontaine from other bands that channel the ghosts of Alt. Country, but aren’t the sole reason for this release being such a success: Vlautin’s experienced bandmates are adept at inflecting his words with mood and drama, taking them off the page and making them into engaging, widescreen dramas. They are able to take the single repeated line of ‘Watch Out’, into something deeply evocative and genuinely sad and turn the direct, jangly pop-rock of ‘You Can Move Back Here’ into a three minute, hook filled wonder.
Vlautin’s third novel Lean on Pete is released next February and if it’s as finely constructed and startlingly detailed as this album, it’s sure to increase his renown.
Listen at Spotify.
Video: ‘You Can Move Back Here’