Richmond Fontaine,
Post to Wire
(El Cortez, 2003)

Just past the midway point of Post to Wire, Portland, Oregon-based group Richmond Fontaine's seventh album, the song "Polaroid" tells the downbeat tale of two lovers who walk into a bar, where the bartender takes their Polaroid and sticks it on the mirror behind the bar. The song -- indeed the title -- perfectly encapsulates the Carveresque beauty of the whole album.

Lyricist and singer Willy Vlautin writes the kind of songs Raymond Carver would surely have written if songs were the medium he chose rather than the short story. Vlautin's songs are filled with losers, fugitives, frightened everybodies and the minutiae of their lives.

"The Longer You Wait" opens proceedings. Filled with lines like "With her brown hair fading gray / And their only son two states away" and "It's been two months since he kissed her face / Twice as long since he held her," it is truly a thing of beauty. With Sean Oldham's drums driving the lyrics along and Paul Bernard's pedal steel punctuation, the song creates an almost-visual image of the melancholy of love.

"Barely Losing" is like a Charles Bukowski story compacted into 2 minutes 47 seconds. "Three day vacation, three days away / The turf club book and I'm barely losing / While you're sitting next to me laughing and / I'm barely losing," it pictures the kind of real lives that songs often cannot capture the same way as prose. Concluding with "Wishing we could always be like this / That we'll never go back," the song has the same bittersweet, short-lived happiness reality that many of Bukowski's most poignant works have.

The songs are punctuated by short spoken-word pieces in the form of postcards: "Postcard from California," "Postcard Written with a Broken Hand," "Postcard from Phoenix, AZ." Written by somebody called Walter and addressing "Pete," the postcards follow Walter on his travels as he tells Pete of his exploits. It's a brilliant concept brilliantly executed.

Post to Wire is a fantastic album, brimming with reality and the kind of brilliant beauty that shines weakly within small lives. Vlautin has the ability to capture a moment that can represent a life.

It is no surprise to hear then that Vlautin has literary ambitions beyond Richmond Fontaine. His debut novel The Motel Life was recently published by Faber & Faber, and he has had stories published in a number of publications. The book was well received with many glowing reviews. It is this storyteller's eye that makes the songs so good, the ability to get to the heart of a situation.

Of course, with songs the words are only one part of the thing.

Musically Richmond Fontaine is awesome, creating the kind of Americana that Mercury Rev and the Flaming Lips have trailblazed for the past couple of decades. The Fontaine boys can do it as good as anyone, and when they get cooking like on the majestic "Williamette," they really cook! Clocking in at almost eight minutes, the song is an epic tragedy about a guy and his brother who have a habit of disappearing, leaving the narrator to live alone with his mother who locks herself in her room with strange men.

Post to Wire is filled with such stories, sad, poignant and beguiling. If only music was always this good.

by Sean Walsh
2 December 2006

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