Critical Writings

Articles and Reviews: MUSIC

Thirteen Cities by Richmond Fontaine (Décor)

The seventh album from one of this writer’s favourite Americana bands sees them decamp from Portland to Tuscon, to record at Wavelab Studios, favourite haunt of Calexico and Giant Sand, both of whom guest here. At first sight it might seem like an upheaval to swap the greenest of states for the desert, but then you remember that chief wordsmith Willy Vlautin grew up in Reno. And a species of psychogeography is indeed at work here, the CD booklet even coming with a map of the desolate south western locus of the towns of the title.

As ever, Vlautin’s lyrical concerns are with the lost, the lonely, the rootlessly marginalised – like the characters of his novel The Motel Life – drifters who, as one of the stone classics here, ‘St. Ides, Parked Cars, and Other People’s Homes’ has it, are …so unsure of life you never fit/Spend your life giving every one the slip. ‘Westward Ho’ is even a litany of sorts, comprised of motel names, the narrator concluding, Motel life ain’t much of a life, and a motel ain’t much of a home/But I found out years ago that a house ain’t either.




The change of scene has lent a more overtly political context to Vlautin’s work, sounded by opening track, the instrumental ‘The Border’. The subsequent ‘I Fell Into Painting Houses in Phoenix, Arizona’ and ‘The Disappearance of Ray Norton’ are both concerned with Mexican economic emigration, the former told from the perspective of a man who left his decorating job because his boss didn’t pick up an illegal who had worked for five days and hadn’t been paid, the later a tale of a neighbour boy who has become involved with tattooed skinheads, due to his hatred of Mexicans taking over his town.

If the landscape has become sparser, the arrangements are richer, in comparison with 2005’s stripped down masterpiece, The Fitzgerald, Paul Brainard’s pedal steel and Jacob Valenzuela’s trumpet in particular lending widescreen textures. Above all, there is the simple but not simplistic, heartfelt but never sentimental, eloquent if sometimes maudlin poetry, expressing Vlautin’s vision of decent people just trying to get by. Funny how the best music coming out of America is not being made by rich, thick celebrities like the odious Paris Hilton, but by and about ordinary folks. Once again, the real thing.

First published in Magill, April 2007














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