A RELENTLESS AND DIFFICULT WORLD Willy Vlautin & Richmond Fontaine

The Portland songwriter wants to let you know
that you’re not alone.

 

BY JOHN DWORKIN

 

There’s an old Paul Simon song titled “Some Folks’ Lives Roll Easy.” It
begins by telling the listeners that some people end up living the good life.
Yet Simon quickly gets to the heart of the matter: “But most folks’ lives,
they stumble/ Lord they fall/ Through no fault of their own/ Most folks never
catch their stars.”
Willy Vlautin’s songs on Richmond Fontaine’s brilliant new
We Used To Think The Freeway Sounded Like A River (El Cortez/Arena Rock)
are about these same “most folks” Simon sings of. Not only do Vlautin’s
characters miss out on “catching their stars” as in Simon’s tune, but that same
sky those stars shine in is caving in on them. Freeway is a collection
of alt-country rockers and ballads for the accidental underachiever.    

 

Many have written about Vlautin’s sparse lyrics. But that can be an
understatement. They’re often so spare as to be nearly invisible and the song
comes at you like an apparition – a sleight of hand formed out of thin air. You
don’t notice the weight being accumulated until it hits you like an oncoming
car. Part of this effect comes from the writing’s tone being a sort of blue
collar vernacular – more like voiceover dialogue from a gritty indie feature
than lines of  poetry. And Freeway truly reads like minimalist narratives. Maybe it was an inevitability for
Vlautin’s sparseness to come to this: The song “Watch Out” has just a single
sentence as its lyric. And it works: “Watch out or your heart will be
nothing but scars.”
Just a friendly warning against ruining your own life.

 

Though comparisons to Son Volt, Charles Bukowski, Springsteen, or even
an updated Walker Evans are not unwarranted, it should be understood that
Richmond Fontaine and Willy Vlautin’s songs are not overly derivative in any
way. It’s all from the heart, whether it recalls the sound of Wilco, REM, John
Prine, or a punk rock aesthetic. And the band is a group of superior craftsmen
who take care in bringing these songs to life: Dan Eccles’s twangy, vibrato
laden telecaster backdrops; Vlautin’s stellar acoustic guitar playing, at turns
bruised and melancholy or propulsive and fiery; Dave Harding’s rich and warm
sounding bass; and Sean Oldham’s seemingly endless creativity behind the drum
kit providing the opening tune’s 2/3 clave, straight ahead rock backbeats,
tight snare rolls, and a whole lot of attitude when needed like on the punkish
“43.” Oldham apparently also plays the “radio
trowel” on the recording: “The [radio trowel] uses a capacitive sensor array
based on Max Mathew’s radio baton… The trowel’s movements control sound
synthesis parameters…”
And Sean’s brother Collin, along with the cello on Freeway, also plays another electronic instrument he developed – the Cellomobo: “A
computer music instrument that attempts to model the behavior of a bowed
string. It gives haptic feedback to the bow at audio rate…”
These guys
don’t lock themselves into any single musical box and the music benefits from
the openness. The haunting singing saw melody that opens the record is a prime
example.

 

The songs create a mosaic of Hometown Diaspora and speak to a seemingly
innate desire to get away. But the act of fleeing where you’re from has a
built-in push/pull effect: the tension between wanting the freedom of
forgetting and independence (push/leave), and the need for belonging and
comfort (pull/stay). The chorus from “You Can Move Back Here” states the second
half of the equation plainly: “You can move back here/We all miss you/
Please, you don’t have to be anything here/We all need you.”

 

This hometown olive branch could be seen as extended to multiple
characters in other songs throughout Freeway, but most notably in
“Lonnie.” Six songs past “You Can Move Back Here,” after dealing out some harsh
truths to face, Lonnie’s old friend tells him, “If you come back I hope I
remember you/ But you know it’s getting hard to.”
That’s an amazingly razor
sharp and brutally honest admission/observation on the nature of friendship to
find in the line of a pop song these days – or any day for that matter. It’s a
heartbreaker. And the way the essence of that earlier song seems to creep into
the latter one happens throughout Freeway. The entire record can be seen
as being about a single couple at different stages in their lives.

 

The details in the songs are so precise that instead of getting an
image or just a strong emotional reaction, you get fully formed scenes that you
can watch being played out vividly in your mind’s eye. And these details range
from the horrific to the banal (often within the same song): working at a paint
store, watching TV to help you sleep, a stray homeless kid finding your gun and
blowing his brains out with it, living out by the mall, a drunk cop breaking
your ex-wife’s jaw, etc… 

 

But as detailed as Vlautin can be, he knows when to draw the line and
let the listener do the work. Confident writers aren’t afraid to leave an open
question in a story that only the audience can answer. Some of the most
important details can be the ones that are omitted. For example, Clint Eastwood
is a master of the omitted detail in his directing (Gran Torino and Million
Dollar Baby
come to mind). In “Lonnie,” the narrator tells Lonnie in the
song’s closing line, “If you come back, maybe they’ll come back too.” But we don’t know who “they” are. Nobody else is referred to earlier in the
song. Are “they” a couple from a previous song on the record? Are “they” even
people? And in “Ruby & Lou,” these two skip town and “They thought they
were finally free of it.”
What is “it?” There were some things mentioned
earlier that you could refer to as the “it” being mentioned, but really it’s
something larger or a combination of things. Something less obvious. These
omitted details are open doors that lead to limitless space.

 

A few of the songs on Freeway deserve special mention and
“Lonnie” is one of them. Its crackling distorted rhythm guitars throwing off
sparks, detailed melodic hooks, and attention to dynamics recalls Shawn
Colvin’s “Get Out Of This House,” but with more of the rough edges left in.
“Ruby & Lou” is just Vlautin with a weary, beautiful acoustic guitar
accompanied by a cello (and light cellomobo). It’s a grocery store job, down on
their luck, Frankie And Johnny type of love story. But tough events lurk
just around the corner and they unexpectedly slap you the face – the way life
keeps slapping these songs’ characters around, kicking them when they’re down
and making it hard to get back up. “43” is the knockout punch you don’t see
coming. It’s got the impact of a freight train and you can’t dodge it. The
first verse opens with just Vlautin’s urgent, two chord acoustic strum and
voice. Then the band enters exploding and all of a sudden the song is on fire.
The song’s events keep piling on over the same two chord vamp drawing out like
a long blade of trouble into the night. And “The Pull” is yet another
sensitively detailed song about hard times. Vlautin’s singing here is occasionally
closer to speaking (the entire final track is spoken word) and has an almost
comforting quality in spite of the facts of the story being told; like a parent
telling a child about an unknown uncle who’s had it rough. This one is about an
ex-addict who turns pro boxer. But for every Rocky Balboa there’s five thousand
Million Dollar Babies who don’t come close to touching their dreams. This song
is for, and about, them.

 

Freeway may come off
as unrealistically bleak or morose to “some folks.” And whoever sees it like
that, can’t relate, and doesn’t recognize themselves in these songs should
thank their lucky stars. But “most folks” will recognize the ring of truth in
these songs and will take solace that they’re not alone in a relentless and
difficult world. They’ll be thankful they’ve got a songwriter and band turning
their pain into beauty.

 

***

 

View some of what we mean:

 

 

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