Richmond Fontaine--"Barely Losing" (mp3)
Richmond Fontaine--"Lonnie" (mp3)
I never heard of Richmond Fontaine, either, until I "crossed the pond" a few years ago. Not literally, sadly. But my wife did give me a subscription to Uncut that Christmas, the British magazine which is arguably the top music magazine out there these days, especially in terms of the range of music it exposes a reader to through articles, reviews, and a "complimentary" CD.
Sometime during that year, which must have been around 2005, their lead-off review in the new releases section was about Richmond Fontaine's Post To Wire. Which they handed 5 stars (out of five). And I was, like, what? Who are these guys? Five stars? But the review gushed so convincingly that I ordered the CD and played it repeatedly once it arrived. And I was hooked.
Actually, I had heard them on an Uncut compilation CD earlier, heard their song "Western Skyline," a rich, lengthy, harrowing song with one of the best uses of pedal steel that I've encountered. But I had no context for them then. And that is kind of the problem. It can be a little hard to get them without a context. I know I've put 2-3 songs on mixes for friends over the years, songs that I think are standout tracks, but that didn't seem to resonate; at least, no one ever mentioned them.
I could stop here and go do some research on Richmond Fontaine and pretend that I know something about them, but I think I'll just forge on ahead. They are from somewhere "out west," like Wyoming or one of the Dakotas (Ok, I peeked--they're from Portland, Oregon). Their lead singer/songwriter is one Willy Valutin, a lyrical talent in the vein of Raymond Carver or Tobias Woolf (and also an author in his own right), telling the tales of working or non-working people living out rural, perhaps transient, lives. They are those other people you see in casinos when you go with your dad or a bunch of pals. those other people who leave the receipt hanging in the ATM machine. They are those people you see hitchhiking on the interstates where no one is supposed to be hitchhiking. They are those people who live in the homes in small towns that you pass through by accident.
With none of the Romanticism of a Springsteen or a Petty, Valutin populates his songs with characters for whom the slightest shred of possibility is a source of light. One of my favorite songs, "Barely Losing," tells the story of a couple on vacation at a sleazy casino, taking pleasure in the fact that things haven't gone as badly as they might have. Another, "Polaroid," tells the story of a wedding meeting barely minimum standards of happiness:
Everyone inside was half ruined and almost gone
Outside in the frozen parking lot
He held her in his arms
As he led her inside her glasses fogged from the cold and
They both stood there dressed in their best clothes
"Has anyone here seen my dad" the girl called
"Cause he hasn't been to work and I don't know
Where he lives anymore"
Not everyone lives their life alone
Not everyone gives up
Or is beaten or robbed or always stoned
The bartender bought them rounds
And made a toast and
With a Polaroid he took their picture and hung it
Up on the bar mirror all alone
And for a little while it was like
The whole world was alright like
No one was beaten or forsaken or had given up
When they'd just seen light
Valutin's songs are powerful, visceral statements of desperation the likes of which no one else is written. Not all of them are easy to listen to. To enter a Richmond Fontaine CD is to enter a fully-realized world of songs and narratives that, even if the characters don't overlap, connect in tone and purpose.
Musically, Richmond Fontaine is not overwhelmingly talented. They have grand musical ideas, but when you hear them play live, you realize that they can't always pull those off. They've got all of the parts worked out but they don't fit together perfectly. It doesn't matter, of course. At least not to me. What they have instead is the authenticity earned from all of years playing in the dumps and the dives and the union halls. They're a home-cooked meal, not a chef's offering. And, frankly, some of their songs are more musical landscapes for Valutin's lyrics than actual songs. But even those are so powerful that a listener just gets caught up in the stories. A current live favorite of mine, from a recent CD We Used To Think The Freeway Sounded Like A River, is "Lonnie," a reflection on that friend that you've tried to help but realized that you can't do anything for:
I ain't going to worry about you anymore
You can keep living that hard if you want to, but the only point you got now is dying
I saw your aunt in the store
She couldn't keep from saying horrible things about you
But the thing is they're all true
I've seen you lying on your back
Ambulance sirens heard after that
I've seen that place you were living, but I won't tell anyone about it or the years of Western Union
If you come back I hope I remember you
But you know it's getting hard to
If you come back maybe they'll come back too
Richmond Fontaine cements a reality I have been slow to realize, that "alt-country" was not a phase in popular music like grunge or hair metal. It has always been part of the undercurrent, as performed by the likes of Hank Williams, Graham Parsons, the "Outlaws" (Willie, Waylon, etc.), Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, Whiskeytown and numerous other practicioners. It reminds us that if you don't know the highways, you don't know America. Not that other part of it, anyway. It may be a part of America that you don't want to know about, but trust me, Richmond Fontaine will tell you about it anyway in the excrutiating, honest detail that sometimes allows popular music to transcend into art.