Review : Richmond Fontaine - We Used To Think The Freeway Sounded Like A River
DrownedinsoundFull disclosure: in mid-2005, I spent a reasonably significant period believing that Richmond Fontaine’s sixth studio album, The Fitzgerald, was quite possibly the Best Thing That Had Ever Happened. And not merely in music; oh no. Just, y’know, generally. Penning it while holed up for two weeks in Nevada’s eponymous Fitzgerald casino, Portland-based author, frontman and acclaimed lyricist Willy Vlautin emerged brandishing an almost debilitatingly elegiac hate-letter to Middle America’s motel-loitering underclass of pimps, gamblers, runaways and lot lizards.
Recounting such fun family memories as the day young Willy and his father stumbled across the battered corpse of a local teenage debtor in a disused quarry pit, that record was implausibly and relentlessly bleak from its first gingerly plucked string to the dying croaky couplet. Indeed, several of The Fitzgerald’s petrifyingly stark, stripped-to-the-bone vignettes were overlaid with faint samples of a chilly midnight wind whipping around the rusting carcass of an abandoned railyard. It was a horrible, hopeless, utterly despairing howl of an album, and I absolutely bloody adored it.
Bemusement soon followed, then, when the rest of Richmond Fontaine’s back catalogue revealed The Fitzgerald to be something of an anomaly. Better-selling releases like Post To Wire (2004) and Thirteen Cities (2007) are much more prismatic in nature, wrapping elements of brassy pomp and piano-laced lounge jazz around their mid-tempo blues-rock spines. Frankly, selfishly, I was a bit disappointed...but happily, there’s hardly anything happy about Vlautin’s eighth effort. Grab a bottle of whisky and bucket of Prozac, misery-lovers - we may not quite be heading back to The Fitzgerald just yet, but we’re certainly going to be passing through the neighbourhood....full text
MusicomhRichmond 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....full text
PopmattersThere are many analogues for Richmond Fontaine. Their almost-but-not-quite unhinged country sound and fondness for atmospherics are reminiscent of Wilco and pre-genre-hopping Ryan Adams. Lyricist, singer, and general mastermind Willy Vlautin’s tales of the drunk and down-and-out evoke Darkness-era Springsteen and American Music Club.
Inevitably, Richmond Fontaine are not quite as good on We Used to Think the Freeway Sounded Like a River, as that combination would suggest. While American Music Club’s Mark Eitzel tempers his songs about broken dreams or working class desperation with a measure of wit or compassion, Vlautin’s determination to make every story as depressing as humanly possible occasionally veers into self-parody. When “The Pull” starts out with a description of a boxer pulling his life together, your first reaction is to wonder how, exactly, things will go wrong. As if suffering from an obligation to end every song on a downer, Vlautin responds with a weirdly perfunctory tragic turn: “Detached his retina / In Fresno / Then they made him quit”. Melodies are in relatively short supply as well, mostly appearing in the form of an arc or cadence to Vlautin’s bleak recitations.
It must be said, though, that the problems mentioned above are the exception, rather than the rule. Vlautin, a published novelist, has sufficient command of the language to paint compelling portraits most of the time. “43” describes a man growing weed in his basement as the only way to make ends meet, awaiting and dreading his eventual downfall. The title track articulates the queasy loss of innocence a couple suffers after their house is burgled. Even tracks that aren’t compelling all the way through tend to have at least one moment of lyrical brilliance—witness the closing of “Ruby and Lou”:...full text
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