Timely reassessment of Portland, Oregon quartet's pre-Post To Wire output
In the light of this double reissue, it’s possible to follow a crooked narrative through Richmond Fontaine’s troubled world. If the leitmotif of this year’s critically lauded Post To Wire (Uncut’s Album of the Month for May) was a kind of spiritual regeneration?a desperate urge to reconnect with the world?1999’s Lost Son, their third album, was where the initial damage was done and 2002’s Winnemucca was the bunkering down and licking of wounds.
Sonically, Lost Son is mean and feral, sprayed with guitar cuss and fuzz, at times slowing to an exhausted shuffle. In vocal and six-string attack, think Uncle Tupelo’s No Depression or The Replacements’ Hootenanny. Even with the amps down, it’s a restless beast. Arriving at a time when the personal life of singer/songwriter/guitarist Willy Vlautin was shot to hell, it reflects his own weary pessimism. Perhaps understandably, this aptly titled record sometimes loops in on itself, scuppered by its own confusion. What’s immediately striking, however, is the novelistic thrust of the hard-luck lyrics. Like Carver or Cheever, Vlautin has an intuitive feel for life on the margins, tragedy in miniature. Typical is “Cascade”: the tale of an estranged teenage kid off to collect a puny inheritance from his dead mother’s mountain house up “where the rivers are like moving lakes” and “you can disappear without a trace”, only to be ambushed by a step-brother and left in the roadside dirt for $1400.
By Winnemucca?named after the Nevada desert town where inveterate gambler Vlautin would often go to escape?the literary strain had become more evident, largely due to its acoustic pace and the emergence of Paul Brainard’s pedal-steel from the murk. Take Lost Son as the electric storm and this as the crackle of day-after static. “Winner’s Casino” is a clear statement of retreat, Vlautin heading for Winnemucca “cause it seems like the only place I know where nothing’s in decline/Cause there’s nothing to do but rise”. The fine art of disappearance is perfected everywhere, from “Northline”‘s skinhead girl with “scarred-up white legs” to the fading car-wreck victim in epic closer “Western Skyline”. If Post To Wire stoked your interest in the blood, guts and emotional circuitry of this extraordinary band, you need these albums.