Richmond Fontaine was formed in 1994 at the Portland Meadows horse track over a shared love of old SST records and bad whisky. Never has quite so propitious a venue been the point of a band—fifteen years later, it's as though they never left.
Recording on Cavity Search alongside label mate Elliott Smith, the band cultivated a distinctively literary alt-country sound that explores the seedy side of the Western frontier, with songs populated by a gritty cast of gamblers and ugly drunks, bad circumstances and bad decisions, and the kind of broken desperation in which the smallest kindness can make a world of difference.
Over the course of eight albums, they've defined their sound, stripped it down, and re-defined it again, encompassing a wide range of genres. But it's their lyricist and singer, Reno-born Willy Vlautin, who makes Richmond Fontaine more than just another great rock band. Vlautin is an accomplished novelist, with two novels—The Motel Life and Northline—under his belt, and a hotly anticipated third, Lean on Pete, due to be released by Harper Perennial in March. (Both The Motel Life and Northline have been optioned for motion picture adaptation, with Courtney Hunt, director of last year's indie smash Frozen River, slated to adapt and direct Northline.)
Like a working-class Raymond Carver, Vlautin's prose is spare and expressive, preoccupied with the lives of the poor, the broke, the downtrodden, and the just plain drunk. Whether he's writing novels or writing songs, Vlautin is foremost a storyteller, and with Richmond Fontaine he crafts melodic, tightly wound narratives that unfold into devastating character studies. And if the characters in Vlautin's lyrics take on uncanny depth and resonance in song, they also come to life in other ways. Allison Johnson, the title character of a song off of 2004's Post to Wire, would reappear as the battered but triumphant protagonist of Northline, Vlautin's brilliant second novel, while Vlautin's soon-to-be-released third novel, Lean on Pete, hearkens back to the band's roots: It's about a boy who takes up residence in Portland Meadows, the very racetrack where the band itself was born.
Despite a string of critically-lauded albums featuring collaborations with friends like Calexico, Richmond Fontaine has long been more popular overseas than in the U.S., making a living touring Europe while continuing to write songs rooted in small-town Americana. After fifteen years, the band is finally poised to find popular success stateside with their strongest and most accessible album to date, We Used to Think the Freeway Sounded Like A River.
River was written during a year-long sabbatical taken by the band after the death of Vlautin's mother. While the album is characterized by Vlautin's markedly literary sensibility—in songs like The Pull, a pensive song about a recovering alcoholic who becomes a successful boxer only to have his career ended by injury—River also contains some of the most personal songwriting of Vlautin's career. In the aftermath of his mother's death, he made a deliberate attempt to confront his demons head on.
"After my mom died, I was a fucking wreck. It wrecked my head because we didn't get along very well. Then I broke my arm and couldn't play guitar and my mind started getting darker and darker. When it healed enough that I could play again I'd go into this shed I have at my place and try to write love songs, songs like Richard Hawley would write. Grand romantic tunes hoping it would set my mind straight. Unfortunately every time I went in there I'd come out with The Pull or 43 or Ruby & Lou. They're love songs, but they're wrecks of love songs," he concludes.
This dynamic informs the album: the struggle to write a love song, the inability to do so. "The Boyfriends" exemplifies this tension perfectly, as a jauntily-strummed guitar cushions devastating lyrics. A man is drunkenly having sex with a woman when he realizes they're being watched by her young son—realizes, further, that he's become just the kind of man that passed through his own mother's bedroom when he was a child. "I ain't like that / I ain't like that!" he cries as the realization sinks in, euphoric horns crescendoing and falling. Even the pop-perfect entreaty of "You Can Move Back Here," though it reads like a straight-ahead love song, isn't quite what it seems: the song was written for Vlautin's brother. And the album's final track, "A Letter to the Patron Saint of Nurses," is a love song of a different sort entirely, paying empathetic homage to nursing professionals (and serving as inspiration, Vlautin says, for the novel he's currently writing).
River was engineered at Jackpot Studios by longtime friend Larry Crane (The Go-Betweens, Elliott Smith, The Decemberists, The Shins) and produced by JD Foster (Dwight Yokam, Calexico, Green on Red). It features band members Sean Oldham (drums, vocals), Dave Harding (bass), and Dan Eccles (guitars), as well as session musicians Collin Oldham (cello, cellomobo), Paul Brainard (pedal steel, trumpet), and Ralph Huntley (piano).
'Raw, autobiographical brilliance...5 stars'
'Eighth and best album from Oregon four-piece...4 stars'
'Gorgeously lyrical guitar-pop from America's Northwest'
-- London Sunday Times
-- The Express
'their finest record since 2004's definitive Post to Wire.'
-- Mail On Sunday (London)
'Alcohol, Winnebagos, freeways, motel rooms...4 stars'
-- The Independent
'Willy Vlautin is one of the most compelling songwriters working today, compares equally to great
American novelists like Raymond Carver or John Steinbeck and musicians such as Bruce Springsteen or Tom Waits'
-- The Sun