Friday, March 6, 2009

Richmond Fontaine. The Fitzgerald (El Cortez, 2005)

"The alcoholics and the ruined and the framed/ I'm on a black road."

Listening to The Fitzgerald, you delve into the sordid lives and witness the less than stellar choices of front man Willy Vlautin's characters - gamblers, alcoholics, murderers - and somehow you come away from this record intimately identifying with all of them. It's a testament to Vlautin's story-telling ability, most recently on display in his critically-acclaimed novels The Motel Life (recently optioned for a film by 21 Grams writer Guillermo Arriaga Jordán) and Northline.

Vlautin formed Richmond Fontaine in 1994, and though he claims to feel more comfortable writing than singing, his voice is rich and evocative, often approaching a sucker-punch to the gut. He's clearly most at home chronicling small-scale tragedies, as in Welhorn Yards, in which the listener is left to her imagination to construct a scenario that could have led up to this: "Everything went wrong," he cried. "I lost the money and I think J.P. is gone, he was just laying on the floor when I ran for the door." Eeps...welcome to Bleaksville.

And as if spending time with the adults in these songs isn't difficult enough, Vlautin even takes us on a few heartbreaking romps with their children. A father-son camping trip in The Incident at Conklin Creek begins: "We were camping in the desert near some old mines/For a week we walked around the deserted old shafts/That's when we saw the body." And appropriately ends with the father passed out drunk in a seedy motel room while his kid sits staring wide-eyed and sleepless. In "Laramie, Wyoming" we follow a boy escaping god-knows-what horrors at home to find sanctuary with his aunt in Laramie (the aunt being one of the bright spots on the record, thank God: "When she saw him she held him and promised she'd never make him go back").

And let's not forget the heartwarming love song "The Janitor," in which a hospital janitor falls for a patient who has been beaten to within an inch of her life by her husband. Our hero gets a haircut, buys a new shirt, rescues his love and takes her (where else?) to a seedy motel. Just when you think all is well, she begins coughing up blood, and well, you get the picture.

We do get another bright spot at the end of The Fitzgerald in Making It Back. Making it back from what? I'd rather not know. But the lovely final lines of this record -- "The lights are all covered and dim and there's nothing but a gentle ease here/ 'Summer in Siam' plays and you and me and our whole place, we're okay/ Now that I'm in your arms again" -- complete the cycle of aural violence. After spending most of The Fitzgerald beating you up, "Making It Back" is Vlautin's apology and the promise that it'll never happen again.

Some may find The Fitzgerald a tad dark, but what will keep you coming back over and over to this record is the obvious affection Vlautin feels for each and every one of his wayward characters. It's infectious, so much so that by the end of this record I find myself wishing I could go hang with Wes at the Astro Lounge and have a few on break, or spend six nights a week in a Reno casino. Maybe not for a living, but just a visit couldn't hurt. Much.

-- Anneke Chy