Richmond Fontaine "The High Country"
Willie Vlautin has long excelled as a chronicler of down trodden working class American folk, be it written or sung. An established novelist in the style of Carver, he’s also produced some superb slices of musical narrative such as “A Jockey’s Christmas” and the miniatures that have peppered previous albums.
On this, the tenth Richmond Fontaine album, he’s gone for the full monty, a “song novel” (or perhaps a concept album sneaking in under false pretensions). An American Gothic tale, 'The High Country' is set in a north western logging community and tells the tale of young, disaffected youths caught up in a story that is Shakespearean in its tragedy. Shakespearean perhaps but with its elements of drugs, illicit affairs and blue collar lives gone wrong, there’s a strong reminder here of the dysfunctional inhabitants of Twin Peaks although without the sonic weirdness and surrealism that infused David Lynch’s warped universe. Given Vlautin’s pedigree as a story teller and the past achievements of the band particularly on 'Post To Wire' expectations were high therefore that this might be the aural equivalent of 3D cinema, an enhanced experience that would envelop the listener.
It starts strongly with Deborah Kelly setting the scene on the spoken word “Inventory.” After some atmospheric music Vlautin and the band launch into “The Chainsaw Sea” which introduces the other characters and joins them up with Kelly’s persona. This is a great Richmond Fontaine song but by now its getting difficult to remember that this is a chapter in an ongoing tale. This problem persists as to keep in touch with the narrative the listener has to strain to connect the dots despite several other narratives and occasional dramatic set pieces (Claude Murray’s Breakdown) that strain to keep the story on track. With repeated listening it does all make sense but what might have been a two page resume for a proposed film script does eventually get lost in the songs.
As for the songs we are on safer ground as there are several here that rank with the best that Richmond Fontaine have previously offered. “The Chainsaw Sea” and “Lost in the Trees” rock with a visceral feel while “The Mechanic’s Life” is a spectacular example of Vlautin’s genius at capturing life in miniature. With familiarity the story here falls into place and it's well worth persevering with but it might be best to just wallow in the songs.
Richmond Fontaine will be playing an acoustic set at Americana 10 in Liverpool on November 12th - click here for more information.