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Richmond Fontaine | Winnemucca (El Cortez)
This is the kind of record you spend all year waiting for. Longer sometimes. And then it comes and it blows you away. Makes every other record seem petty and lacking in substance. And then you realise it won't even be released here and it makes you mad, so what do you do, you write a review and hope people will try it (and if you order it from the band's website, www.richmondfontaine.com, for your $13 you'll get this and their great live album all shipped to your door here in the UK!) But let's talk about the album. How the first track, Winner's Casino, immediately pulls you into Willy Vlautin's tightly detailed world. An acoustic guitar strums lazily, a pedal steel crawls around it - it's probably the closest thing that RF have done to a pop song, it's catchy as hell but its heart is dark and dank, recalling the casino scenes from Denis Johnson's last novel 'The Name of the World'. Out Of State follows with some delicate Leonard Cohen fingerpicking and a whispered entreaty to a lover. It's so intimate and fragile it's heartbreaking. While, on previous album's, RF's propensity for big noise has sometimes overshadowed the nuances of the songwriting, on 'Winnemucca' everything is stripped away, letting the songs shine like diamonds in the glare of an unremitting sun. Paul Brainard's pedal steel playing takes the forefront, a lovely, enervated sound that manages to be both spacey and poignant, never settling into country cliché, evoking blistering hot Nevada days, sitting outside in the emptiness, the future ahead of you, the past in tatters behind, you feel like curling up on the floor but then you catch something out of the corner of you eye. It works like a dream and no more so than on Santiam, the best song of the year, no competition, a slow, haunted piece that details a man's last drive through his hometown before spending a year and a half in prison. It's a marvelously detailed and affecting piece of writing, Vlautin's voice sounding wracked and tormented as he lists the places that will disappear for him, each chord change ratcheting the tension until the narrator can't take it any more and he spills all his fears to his brother. If nothing else buy it for this track - you won't hear as moving a song as this for a long time to come (and to think some people say there's nothing left to write about.) Vlautin is in good voice throughout the record and while for many his voice may recall Jay Farrar's, there's none of the ponderous tone that the ex-Tupelo singer so often falls foul of. But again, to go back to the crux, it's the writing that shines here (not to downgrade the music which is vast, spacious, unsettling and dreamsucked). Vlautin has the ability (like Springsteen, like Waits) to draw you into his character's worlds and fears within two lines and once drawn, you won't let go, whether it's the lover who sees his ex in every face that passes by (Glisan Street) or the man holding the dying body of his friend, telling him it'll be all right, telling him, there's a place where the beautiful women will smile (Western Skyline). There's no more I can say, if you're a fan of albums like American Music Club's 'United Kingdom' and 'California' or Springsteen's 'Nebraska' then you'll know what to expect and hell, it'll leave you curled up on the floor. It'll cut your fucking heart out.
CWAS #11 - Autumn 2002