Wednesday, February 06, 2008

More of Becky's homework

I have a lot of homework to do tonight. So, by way of stalling, and to appease the slavering hordes of dedicated readers and fans (hi Karl!), here's a record review I did awhile back. It's about Richmond Fontaine. (Gasps of amazed disbelief from the audience.) Hush, you. Anyway, I think I've reverted, since writing this, to having The Fitzgerald be my favorite RF album -- but I still really love that mariachi song at the end of 13 Cities. The whole thing is great, really.

Also, for my legions of fans in the UK, Willy's new novel is out: it's called Northline, also the name of an early song he wrote, and the girl in it, Alison Johnson, is the name of another song he wrote. And there's a video, I just found:

Anyhow. Read on, legions of fans, and buy the record or the book or even both. You won't regret it.

Richmond Fontaine
13 Cities

Say you're hitchhiking. It's hot. You've been thumbing rides all day and not a bite. You're about to give up and throw yourself across the yellow line when an old guy in a pickup stops. You get in. He cracks you a beer, says "Relax, kid, let me tell you a story." He doesn't ask where you're going; he knows it doesn't matter. He tells you a story. When your beer's done, he hands you a fresh one. The story gets a little better, a little sadder.

That's how it feels to come home at the end of the day and put on Richmond Fontaine's 13 Cities. Somehow the record comforts and relieves you even if you don't have any beer. Maybe it's because things aren't ever likely to get as bad for you as they are for the people Willy Vlautin writes about. RF's singer-songwriter is a master of the sad portrait. The band's 2005 album, The Fitzgerald, featured Vlautin essentially alone with a guitar, telling quiet stories in his humble way, with the ragged voice of an old barfly and the intonation of a 6-year-old. On The Fitzgerald most of the stories end badly. It's a beautiful album, but no comfort to a fragile soul.

13 Cities is not so brutally sparse and grim. That's not to say it's cheerful. With one exception, Vlautin's songs are as melancholy as ever; but this time he's not alone with his sadness. The band—Vlautin (guitars, vocals), Sean Oldham (drums, vocals), Dave Harding (bass), Dan Eccles (guitars) and Paul Brainard (pedal steel, piano)—recorded this album in Arizona with the Tucson band Calexico. The expanded cast of musicians lightens the mood considerably. All the joy on the record comes from the music, which provides on most of the songs a heartening counterbalance to the vocals.

The record opens with "Moving Back Home #2," announced by a Mexicali-style trumpet flourish. It's a fast-paced tune; the drums push it along, and it sounds happy, at least until you catch what Vlautin is singing: "I'm living in my mom's basement again / I come in at 4 am / She gets pissed / Gotta be up at 6 / We get into a fight / So I go out again." For a different band, the juxtaposition of a jaunty tune with lyrics about a hopeless loser who gambles all night might be ironic. But Richmond Fontaine is never ironic. It's just that Vlautin can laugh at himself, or his former self, and at the mistakes he's made and keeps making.

But he doesn't laugh at the other characters who stumble through his songs: toward them he is always kind. Vlautin's people are gamblers, drunks and wrecks, immobilized by circumstance or crushed by the weight of bad luck. But they're not bad people, and the songwriter holds out hope for them. He leaves an escape hatch, a way to imagine that, if things go right, maybe one day the people he's singing about will be better off. But it won't be easy.

In the slow, shuffling third track, "$87 and a Guilty Conscience That Gets Worse the Longer I Go," the narrator turns his back on a friend who's holed up in a motel room with an underage hitchhiker. To rescue the girl, he calls the police, then feels terrible for betraying his friend. Nobility is seldom noticed or rewarded in a Vlautin song. Another example is the harmonica-laced ballad, "Fell Into Painting Houses in Phoenix, Arizona," about a young house painter whose crew picks up a Mexican day-laborer: "We worked five days straight, then we didn't pick him up / and I knew that the kid had never been paid... I didn't show up the next day / I ain't shit, but I ain't that way." The claustrophobia in the song has nothing to do with physical space: though wide horizons stretch all around him, the music closes in and the narrator repeats through clenched teeth, "Get me outta here, get me out get me out of here."

Relief comes in the instrumental interludes, like "El Tiradito," a relaxed and sprawling breather that lets the desert scenery roll gently by in your mind. Then its steady ka-thunk eases into the ominous next track, "A Ghost I Became," about a guy so disenchanted he vanishes into the landscape.

Near the end there's a break in the gloom. "Four Walls" is a tiny moment of pure romantic exuberance that reveals all the previous sorrows as mere artifacts of passing bad luck. We don't need anything, the singer tells his girl; nothing bad can find us here. "We'll just lay around," he says, and the guitar tones rise up like church bells. "And our hearts will sing," and the bells ring faster, louder, until at the peak of their clamor he finishes the sentence, "like mariachis" -- and it's like church just let out.

Granted, the album ends on its saddest note, with "Lost in the World," but by then you already know—the band has already told you—that things might turn out OK after all.

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