Richmond Fontaine have been around for a long time, in music years. Forming in 1994, this is the eighth full-length release from the four-piece fronted by singer and lyricist Willy Vlautin, and it suggests their particular brand of evocative homespun Americana shows no signs yet of wearing thin.
Vlautin is a published novelist as well as a songwriter, and his lyrics are often compared with the short stories of Raymond Carver. This can indeed be heard in the short tales, succinctly yet wholly believably told and seemingly autobiographical on several tracks, notably We Used To Think The Freeway Sounded Like A River, The Boyfriends, 43 and especially The Pull.
The Pull tells, in spare, non-emotional language, the story of a man who takes up boxing, goes to AA and “quits talking”, realising that “when he was sober he didn’t know nothing”. No neat resolution or salvation is offered, with the character ending up being forced to give up boxing, after winning several fights, due to the injuries sustained. He is just one of many characters that people this album, leading lives of quiet desperation.
Also memorable, and beautifully evoked, are the young runaway couple Ruby And Lou, the protagonist terrified that he may turn into one of the kinds of men that his mother used to date, on The Boyfriends, the middle-aged divorcé in 43 and Lonnie about whom we learn, starkly, that “the only point you’ve got now is dying”. The very darkest, most violent imagery includes a homeless youngster blowing out his brains (Ruby And Lou) and 43’s scenes of domestic abuse where we are baldly informed that “the cop broke her jaw”.
So far, so bleak, then. But Vlautin also leavens things with softer, even occasionally romantic moments. Maybe We Were Both Born Blue comes across like a love song, albeit one with slightly downbeat lyrics, and closing track A Letter To The Patron Saint Of Nurses is as touching a description of the everyday joys of a long-term relationship as you are likely to encounter, where the narrator watches his girlfriend/wife get changed in the car, fondly noticing “Your skin, and your black bra, and the scar on your back from when you were a kid”.
For a band so literate and lyrically gifted it is perhaps surprising to find a larger than usual proportion of instrumental tracks on the album. The short and somewhat pointless interlude Northwest doesn’t really add much, but better are the atmospheric Sitting Outside My Dad’s Old House, the near-instrumental Watch Out (whose only lyric is the repeated, sometimes spoken, sometimes whispered warning or imprecation “Watch out, or your heart’ll be nothing but scars”) and Walking Back To Our Place At 3am, where the gently ambulatory music neatly matches the title.
The music by means of which most of this is conveyed is a straightforward, placid, often rather unremarkable form of alt.country, where steel guitars keen, and the occasional mariachi brass quavers a disconsolate melody. This can tend towards a blandness that threatens to tip a song over into easy listening territory (see We Used To Think…) but on balance the arrangements work well in successfully framing, without distracting from, the stories being told.
So in summary if you are looking for an album that could almost double up as an engrossing series of short stories, with tales from the darker side of life and love, then you could certainly do worse than dip into this album. It’s sometimes gentle and melancholy, sometimes astringent and occasionally shocking themes are centred around an array of modern day American characters that are alienated, downbeat – and entirely believable.