ichmond Fontaine may be the best rock band you’ve never heard of. While they tend to get lumped into the nebulous and practically irrelevant alt.country genre, the truth is that they have an attitude more reminiscent of The Replacements and a sound closer to the L.A. centric country tinged rock of Rank & File and The Blasters. But if there’s a pedal steel player in the band someone’s going to point the No Depression finger.
On Richmond Fontaine’s last two albums Winnemucca and Post To Wire the band presented a loose collection of songs that explored the real world struggles underpinning the fantasy of the American west. These were songs populated by the down and out and the just barely hanging on, anchored by the indomitable spirit of those who hold out hope in the face of misery. The songs rocked and wept at the same time, bouncing on inspired guitar play and simple verse chorus verse song structure elevated by songwriter Willy Vlautin’s Raymond Carveresque lyrics. There was something special on those records that could be felt every time the laser hit the disc.
Vlautin’s talent with lyrics has long been a focus of attention. He has a keen eye for the downtrodden and the kind of voice that makes you believe what he’s saying. There’s a mature weariness in his throat that makes the characters in his songs deserving of our sincere sympathies, rather than receptacles for pity or condescension. Vlautin is a songwriter with a short story writer’s soul.
The Fitzgerald is both the same and different than previous Richmond Fontaine records. The centerpiece of the songs is still Vlautin’s narratives. The songs were written over a month period while holed up in Fitzgerald’s Casino & Hotel in Fontaine’s hometown of Reno, Nevada. The characters that populate the songs on The Fitzgerald are imbued with the flavor of the small gambling town and the desperation that clings to the people who try to survive at its fringes. Each song is a chronicle and attempted explanation of why we live self destructively. Without question these songs are Vlautin’s most lyrically accomplished to date. They are fully realized situations condensed into four-minute hits of mainlined heartbreak and repercussion. In listening to these songs it’s no surprise that Vlautin recently signed a book deal with British publisher Faber & Faber to release his first novel. He has an eye for character and detail on par with some of rock’s best lyricists.
Musically The Fitzgerald is a departure from the rock band format Richmond Fontaine has employed so skillfully. Much more than their other records < I>The Fitzgerald sounds like a folk album. This partly due to the emphasis on Vlautin’s stories, but is cemented by the guitar and voice focus of many of these songs. It isn’t until the third song “Black Road” that we hear an electric guitar swell menacingly behind Vlautin’s voice. “Disappeared” is the first sign of the complete band as piano, light drums and harmonies fill out the story of a drinker at The Swiss Chalet pining for the woman that left him. “Casino Lights” is comprised of just acoustic guitar and a gentle violin. Without exception The Fitzgerald, at least for the moment, leaves behind the raucous boozy songs that earned comparisons to vintage Replacements.
While the songs tend towards sparse instrumentation, the album has a dense claustrophobic quality. Mike Coykendall’s (M. Ward, Beth Orton) production leaves little space between the instruments creating a textural darkness that echoes the lack of natural light so familiar to anyone who’s spent time in a casino bar. It’s a feeling not so much of foreboding but of inertia. You want the characters in these songs to escape, to make good decisions, while knowing that their circumstances will prevent it.
This musical departure may be The Fitzgerald’s blessing and curse. Fans of the band’s usual formula may be put off by the dense folk stylings of this record, but close listening is well rewarded. The Fitzgerald is a deeply affecting listen best augmented by dim lights and full bottles of booze, though it does ask to be met half way. You need to give some attention to the characters that populate these songs in order to fully appreciate the power at their core.
Reviewed by: Peter Funk
Reviewed on: 2005-08-09