Richmond Fontaine,
The Fitzgerald
(El Cortez, 2005)

Richmond Fontaine is one of those bands that should be better known than it is. Specializing in bittersweet tales of everyday life amongst the wide wedge-end population of people who are just about holding it together, the band are successors, of a sort, to Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen. Like that illustrious pair, Richmond Fontaine's chief lyricist and songwriter Willy Vlautin is extremely literate and articulates the despairing and near-devastated lives of his characters very poignantly.

On The Fitzgerald, the band continues its ongoing exploration of these lives, and picks up where last album Post to Wire left off. Most of The Fitzgerald was written in the eponymous hotel and casino in Reno, where Vlautin stayed for a month, observed life around him and sketched out the songs.

Marked by a sparse approach, the songs are Will Oldham-esque mini-symphonies of heartbreak and down-on-luck living.

"Disappeared" is a case in point. "He left work to stop the visions of his wife Francine / A madness came over him, a madness came over him / In the corner of a bar called the Swiss Chalet he was lost / In images of them laying in their bed and of them / Swimming in the lake," the first stanza goes. Later: "Behind a warehouse he lay and / He saw them floating together in the air / Wrapped together as fire and smoke that / Would never fade ... He disappeared into heartbreak." The strong poetic gifts of Vlautin create the picture so vividly and strongly, one cannot help but recall Waits' ability to take Bukowskian tales of woe and condense them so tightly yet perfectly into a handful of lines. Musically, the slow intonation of Vlautin's vocals and the perfectly-pitched musical accompaniment are the perfect backdrop for the word images.

That gift for poetic condensation is even better illustrated on the epic "The Janitor." The first four lines state: "He worked as a janitor and he met her there / Her husband's fist, her swollen face, her broken ribs and missing hair, / Her crumbling voice, her soft white skin and blonde hair / No charges did she file." With that he sets up another tale of loss and love found in the unlikely milieu of a hospital where she is recovering from the aforementioned assault. As the song staggers its way through, the heartbreaking tale unfolds with a rare mastery.

It's difficult not to focus on the lyrics when reviewing Richmond Fontaine because they are so damn good. As well as the names mentioned already, Raymond Carver's spirit wafts through these songs as well. A gift for observation and deep insight into the lives of his subjects gives Vlautin a clear head start over many of his contemporaries.

What The Fitzgerald gives is a picture of the America that usually doesn't make it to the sitcoms. It's the America of cheap motels, dead-end jobs, confusing love, drink and sadness. Small nowhere towns, imperfect relationships, unfulfilled dreams, payphones, cheap broken-down cars, long black roads and troubled fathers. Torn clothes, roadsigns, fearful glances, crackly radios, late nights talking and cigarettes. It's the America of Steinbeck's characters' descendants, the people Woody Guthrie would be singing about today. And it's "life." It's real life in all its twisted beauty, cracked fortune and ragged glory.

Songs like "Casino Lights," "Laramie, Wyoming" and "Don't Look & It Won't Hurt" are also standouts. The words evocative and rich, and the musical settings fitting perfectly.

With The Fitzgerald, Richmond Fontaine has cemented its position as a chronicler of the dispossessed, an arch narrator of lives undocumented and artists of a true American dream.

The album closes with "Making It back," whose first lines tell us that it's "3 a.m. and the bottles are lined up in rows on the floor again / 'Summer in Siam' plays on repeat again we never get sick of it." The reference to the Pogues' "Summer in Siam" is telling, Vlautin is like an American Shane MacGowan, writing from the gutter, but looking, always looking, at the stars.

review by
Sean Walsh

12 January 2008

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