Sunday, August 2, 2015

Another Song, Another CD

Traveling to and from Florida in July afforded me some wonderful listening opportunities.  Again, I offer a couple that could or did slip past.

THE SONG: Kurt Vile's "Pretty Pimpin'" came out a week ago Friday and somehow the song insinuated itself, at least for awhile, among the higher offerings on Spotify's "New Music Friday."  Built around a mostly-ascending acoustic guitar progression, the song is a comic variation on the notion of not being able to recognize the person who is looking back at you in the mirror.

"Pretty Pimpin'" is a punchline song, and while I won't give that punchline away, 11, 12, 13 listens in, I still laugh, often out loud, when that line is delivered.  Why is an acoustic ditty by a War-On-Drugs-type white guy called "Pretty Pimpin'"?  Well, that's the joke.

I like these kinds of songs that sound kind of lazy and effortless, but that reveal their craft after repeated listenings.  I have a friend who sends me his demos from time to time, and on first listening, I thought this was him in both vocal style and temperament.

THE CD:  While I have mentioned the band Richmond Fontaine on these pages before, it was a passing mention, maybe a song.  But while cleaning out my office this summer, I came across the only CD of theirs that I own in hard copy, Post To Wire.  The others I own digitally.

Post To Wire is nothing short of a masterpiece of Americana, of Alt-Country, but it is unlikely that you've heard it for any number of reasons, but the one I'll focus on is this: the veracity of this CD's snapshots of middle America are too visceral, too real to allow for a casual listening.  And that alone is too much for a music listener in 2015.  Oh, but for the discerning and the patient, there are great rewards.

The CD opens with a song told by a narrator who takes a girl on a trip after she gets suspended from school, though the parameters of the relationship are unclear.  The tone it sets, however, is one of people trying to escape their circumstances, whether it is the relatively-sweet story of a couple on vacation at a cheap casino ("Barely Losing") or the barely-subsisting stories referenced in "Always On The Ride."  Imagine a song that opens with these lyrics: "Maybe you'll wake up/ On a floor somewhere,/ Or in some kind of sanitarium."  Lead singer/songwriter/ novelist Willy Valutin's experiences have taken him closer to the edge than most of us have been, and the lyrics pull no punches.  Valutin's character are not romantics, not dreamers; some days are simply better than others.

Take, for example, the newly-married couple in "Polaroid" who celebrate their wedding in a local bar where everyone is trashed, where the bartender is the one who has to take a picture and make a toast because no one knows where the bride's father is-- he hasn't show up to work in days and no one knows where he lives.  Still, the narrator celebrates the fact that,

Not everyone lives their life alone,
And not everyone gives up or is robbed or always stoned.

I suppose that as a precursor to Valutin's later published works, the CD also has a running series of connected musical vignettes, letters from a guy named Walter who is on the run, who writes a series of letters to "Pete," a friend from whom he stole money and pawned his parents' wedding rings, but to whom he is always apologetic and trying to make things right, even as he slips into more desperate circumstances.

But it is the moments of light that keep the listener engaged-- from the previously-mentioned "Barely Losing," a gambling metaphor that spreads beyond to "Allison Johnson," whom the narrator wants to do right by to the title track, a duet with an unknown female vocalist, which argues that "I don't care anymore/ Who was right and who was wrong/ Who was left and who was leaving."  In arguing for staying together, the best that either can offer is "I know you're worn out/ But I'm worn out too."

Despite my focus on the lyrics, Richmond Fontaine is a tight, veteran band who can support anything from the harrowing to the hopeful, electric, acoustic, or country style.  Their music sounds like the heartlands, both in its space and desolation and in its multitude of influences.

Authentic songs deserve an authentic listening.  If you are ever up for that, Post To Wire will not disappoint.  Even for one who enjoys the confessions or the starkness of better known songwriters, the songs of Richmond Fontaine have a hyper-reality that you may not have encountered before.

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