Thursday, September 24, 2009

We Used to Think the Freeway Sounded Like a River - Richmond Fontaine (Autumn 2009)

We Used to Think the Freeway Sounded Like a River

Richmond Fontaine
Décor Records.

SCQ Rating: 84%

Hell, I’ve been kicking leaves, running backstreets each night while the sun sets earlier and earlier. Something about autumn seems to make surroundings feel real again; the haze and humidity that clouded the skyline and our lungs dissipates and one night you look out at the view from your balcony and see each distant apartment light, every midnight star, clearer than you had in months. Like a seasonal moment of clarity, these leaves and sweet breezes harness all the gravitas that felt useless during summer’s spontaneity and appropriately, We Used To Think The Freeway Sounded Like a River, the ninth studio album from this Portland, Oregon five-piece, feels as lived-in and precious as your favourite fall jacket.

At first listen, Richmond Fontaine sounds like a band of Americana drifters picking the sweet weeds laid down by Uncle Tupelo and early Ryan Adams, and there’s truth in such lofty comparisons. As surely as Willy Vlautin’s vocals share the smoked-out introspection of Jeff Tweedy, no one would be shocked had the guitarists of Richmond Fontaine turned out to be Heartbreaker-peddlers David Rawlings and Gillian Welch. Leave it to the title track’s establishing shot of abandoned homes and empty pools filled with shopping carts to kill the comparisons then, as we’re introduced to Vlautin’s life in the shadow of the freeway. Because it’s beautiful; a love-song for someone he lived with on the outskirts of nowhere, counting quarters and dozing off to the current of overhead traffic. Wisely, it’s also a catalyst – their humble abode is broken into and ravaged – for the album’s turn into bittersweet nostalgia and subsequent tales of moving on. There’s the account of ‘Ruby and Lou’ whose chance encounter with a homeless youth kickstarts their aimless journey, and the aging boxer in ‘The Pull’ who eventually has his retina detached and is forced to retire.

Forget spoilers: the sting in these stories lies far deeper than my rough summaries reveal and besides… the best tales belong to Vlautin’s autobiography. As the ascending chorus of ‘You Can Move Back Here’ finds the band rebounding from their earlier burglary with determined percussion and delicate piano accompaniment, the roots-driven guitar of ‘The Boyfriends’ gives way to a mariachi crest, where Vlautin admits a frightening realization linking the strange men who once courted his mother to his own one-night stand. Even his friends, who in the case of ‘Lonnie’ apparently live harder than our lead-singer protagonist, reflect the core elements to Vlautin’s expertise, highlighting through hearsay the self-abuse and desire that equips the best-armed songwriters. Although We Used to Think the Freeway Sounded Like a River is predominantly mid-tempo, Richmond Fontaine rarely stay still, alternating between bittersweet reflection, classic Dylan-esque narratives and pulsating barn-burners. Take ‘Two Alone’, a ragged and unruly stomp that finds the band at their tensely composed then cymbal-crashing best while Vlautin spits rebellion toward what commoners consider his predisposed legacy.

Yes, there’s a catharsis at work, one as stubborn as it is volatile, yet never does Willy Vlautin’s lyrical curve swing beyond the needs of a composition and into whiny self-righteousness. And that’s a clear distinction which divides the whole of Americana down the centre: those who sing about past experiences and those who re-live them. With We Used to Think the Freeway Sounded Like a River, Richmond Fontaine deserve that latter category, fleshing out their liquor and love yarns with sweeping instrumentals that connect these near stream-of-conscious recollections; ‘Sitting Outside My Dad’s Old House’ dwells from the porch like a quiet evening while ‘Walking Back to Our Place at 3 A.M.’ is carried by finger-picked and choral elation, as if resolving any trauma of the album’s opening robbery. Inevitably, it’s a false ending trumped by ‘A Letter to the Patron Saint of Nurses’, a spoken-word account of hospital horrors and dying dreams that sheds a different angle on the idyllic relationship that opened the disc. Despite the contrast of diseased reality and healthy lethargy, Vlautin and his lover remain comfortable but restless, in love yet indifferent. The life-lessons of being a nurse don’t instill renewed purpose, so much as find the couple losing optimism, and as broke as they started out.

We Used to Think the Freeway Sounded Like a River has its cyclical moment, sure, where resolution seems to evade Vlautin and his assorted cast of characters in favour of repetition, but that’s hardly the goal. What Richmond Fontaine (rounded out by Dave Harding, Sean Oldham, Paul Brainard and Dan Eccles) offer here are moments in time, as eloquently performed as they are lyrically detailed, which glimpse beyond the surface events without grasping for metaphysical purpose. How a band of this caliber – from Oregon, no less – remains more popular overseas than here in the West remains a mind-blowing mystery to me yet, make no mistake, this record belongs among the genre’s upper echelon. A tragic, triumphant modern classic for dying, autumnal days.

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