Thursday, June 21, 2007

Thirteen Cities - Richmond Fontaine

Thirteen Cities - Richmond Fontaine
El Cortez Records/D├ęcor

After the beautiful dustbowl austerity of previous album The Fitzgerald, Willy Vlautin and cohorts have relocated to the deserts of the Southern USA, residing in Tucson after years in Portland. Their travels south across these arid landscapes provided the inspiration for the songs collected on Thirteen Cities. The album comes with a map to trace out the route that they and the songs followed, a lovely touch in a world where the packaging of music seems to have become an afterthought. It’s the attention to detail, not a word wasted or a music backdrop over-egged, that mark Richmond Fontaine out as something incredibly special.

The brief opening track The Border is all pedal steel and sunrise atmospherics. As it slides into the horn-drenched Moving Home Again, you can hear that the sun-bleached environment has informed the sound of the record. Those Tex Mex masters Calexico and Giant Sand have stirred a little hot burrito sauce into the sound on several tracks and it’s a welcome addition.

Thirteen Cities is much more of a band record that the stripped-back Fitzgerald. There are marvellous little sonic touches, little flourishes that add sparkle to the songs - the rippling guitar figure and organ tones that underpin $87 and A Conscience That Gets Worse the Longer I Go, the haunting harmonica on I Fell into Painting Houses in Phoenix. Capsized has a bouncing, nagging riff, pedal steel sighs and a drum track that sounds like a boxcar heading for the scrap heap. It’s the Band meets Uncle Tupelo, all rustic charm and warped country-pop sensibility.

Vlautin is the heir to the mantle of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and therefore Springsteen. These tracks speak for the disaffected, the disenfranchised, those lost on the fringes. A world of McJobs, chasing low-rent dollars on the edges of criminality. This is a bleak vision of the American Dream, scripted by John Steinbeck and illustrated by Edward Hopper.

The lyrics are stripped of metaphor and the allegorical, finding beauty and passion in the mundane. Willy Vlautin’s vocals are as lovingly worn and cracked as the spine of a preacher’s leather-bound bible. The flaws and dusty folds in his voice are testament to his commitment of speaking for the voiceless. Vlautin’s magic is wonderfully demonstrated by the 1:38 of St Ides Parked Cars. In a series of brief images and taut lines, the song conveys fractured relationships, faded dreams and a deep well of hurt. Backed by only the lightest of acoustic guitars and that sonorous voice, it squeezes more ennui and sorrow into this track alone than plenty of bands manage in a whole album.

The Kid From Belmont Street opens in a near silent rush of ghostly febrile guitar whispers and cymbal washes; it has the space, the vacant haunted quality of American Music Club circa California. It’s an take on the ambient void, the silent humming of dread, the overpowering pressure of silence and endless space.

Lone piano notes and elongated brass notes paint sparse soundscapes that invoke the deadly stillness of the desert at dusk. Lost in This World closes the LP. Against a sparse piano part and vapour trails of guitar, Vlautin sings of being lost in the world, of regrets and fucking up. It’s breathtaking, heartbreaking and one of the most beautiful songs you will hear this year. In the hands of a less talented band the album could have come across as an audio version of the National Geographic written by Howard Zinn. Thankfully, it transcends that bone-dry premise to become something extraordinary.

Tony Heywood ©

First Published in Mercury Moon

This is some footage of Willy Vlautin in a motel room (The perfect setting for him)play acoustic versions of two of the songs on the LP. The two tracks are The Kid From Belmont Street and Capsized.

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