Thursday, September 10, 2009

Album Review: Richmond Fontaine - We Used to Think The Freeway Sounded Like A River

Richmond Fontaine are a sort of "alt-country" band and have been going since the mid 90s. Largely the vision of singer, frontman and main songwriter Willy Vlautin, they have 7 previous albums under the belt. Vlautin ia also a published author and his songs, like his accomplished novels, are largely downbeat, focusing on drifters, deadbeats and losers trying to find their way out of desperate situations.

Vlautin's voice can grate a bit and some of the overtly country songs I can take or leave. One of the main problems with some Richmond Fontaine songs is they work well as stories but feel forced into songs with the music grafted on. Vlautin is, however, an excellent story-teller (his 2nd novel, Northline is a must-read).

This album opens with the title track, a gentle song, very relaxed where he depicts a crummy lifestyle, where they lived next to an abandoned house with a broken pool full of shopping carts, and they pretended it was their swimming pool. After a short instrumental (Northwest), there follows one of their more upbeat songs, You Can Move Back Here, which sounds a little like REM. This is followed by the unsettling The Boyfriends, where the protagonists realises his new girl has a child, and he imagines how the kids feel, all to the accompaniment of a sad mariachi trumpet.

The Pull is an another sad story delivered over relatively quiet backing, and is followed by a barely audible instrumental. Maybe We Were Both Born Blue is, despite the title, one of the more upbeat numbers with a kind of wistful countryish backing. Watch Out is another quiet song, consisting mainly of Vlautin whispering 'watch out' but the next track 43 is more intense, possibly the most intense on the album.

Lonnie is as close as they have come yet to mainstream rock, while towards the end of the album Two Alone is another intense moment, with a simple but driving melody. The final track, A Letter to the Patron Saint of Nurses (great title) is a spoken word piece over a quiet backing which is surprisingly effective.

Overall this won't convert anyone, but is a good addition for fans of their music.

In Defence of the CD

A lot has been written recently about the demise of the CD and talking about what an unloved format it really is.

I started buying music on vinyl. Mostly albums, never had much time for singles. I liked the large sleeves with the intricate artwork, but buying records in Dublin was an experience fraught with uncertainty. Assuming the shop put the right record into the sleeve (this did actually happen several times), there was always the chance of some slight damage. This then played havoc with the family record player, which I was allowed use sparingly. Was always handier to immediately tape the album. Though there was nothing like the status attached to a Freebird Records bag (great Dublin record shop), always the bag of choice when loaning out a record.

Amongst my peers there was a culture of taping records for people. I was unwilling to buy The Cure’s album Pornography myself as the drama it would have caused at home wouldn’t have been worth it. One of my classmates had it. He was dubious about my ‘Cure-credentials’ but eventually relented. Imagine my surprise when I got the tape home to hear Glenn Miller!

It got to the stage where I graduated to just buying tapes. They were portable and handy for me, being the owner of a tape recorder where much of my formative listening was done and then also a walkman. The problem with this was the fast forward and rewind element, alien to many under 30s! To skip the dodgier tracks, you had to fast-forward the tape and guess when the next song would start. A skill perfected by many but lethal for walkman batteries. And with purchased tapes there was always the situation where both sides of a tape were of unequal length, so you invariably had to fast-forward one side or another. Though it did make you actually listen to a whole album, rather than skipping around, mainly due to my laziness in fast-forwarding!

There was also the tape eating that went on with tape recorders. Basically tape recorders would chew up a tape randomly, in the middle of playing it. There was no particular genre my tape player liked more than others, though it liked a bit of goth now and then. Repairing a tape was a real science. Invariably the tape would have snapped so it was a case of unravelling the tape from the player, smoothing out gently and surgically applying some sellotape to the underside of the tape. A skill at which I became adept.

Towards the end of the 80s, compact discs (CDs) started to appear in Irish record shops. At this stage we had only one CD player in the house, purchased at huge cost. CDs were a good bit more expensive than records and tapes at first. They were supposedly indestructible, though as most people know, they scratch just as easily as records or anything else. And the smaller format meant reduced size artwork inside a plastic box, which are irritating in that it’s incredibly easy to break the little hinges which holds the package together.

Some bands used the new format to their advantage. Artwork has involved into little booklets, which can offer contain an array of images, photographs, lyrics etc. Though many avoid the plastic cases and produce a cardboard digipack. These work well as long as they avoid taking a big drink (!), something from which they never recover. The rounded edge CD cases look awful though, no time for those!

The beauty of a CD is, apart from the digital sound, is the ease and convenience with which they can be used. Skipping from song to song is taken for granted now but was revolutionary for those of us used to tapes. Works really well when you are playing DJ while having a few drinks, though the aftermath can often consist of a carpet of CDs and open boxes! CDs can also hold up to 80 minutes of music, which usually means more tracks and more value for your money.

But the real plus with CDs is a convenient physical package. I can’t warm to mp3 files, they are hard to love and harder to hold. They seem like a transient format to me, one wrong-click and it’s gone forever. The ultimate disposable format. To me music should not be disposable like this, but cherished. And I really don’t want my music collection to be solely based around a computer. Where are the joys of flicking through a CD rack on a computer? A CD collection says a lot about a person, what music is contained there, how it is sorted etc. Imagine going over to somebody’s place and just clicking though files. Joyless.

Listening to a CD, while flicking through the booklet is part of the experience in my book. It’s too hard to care about mp3 files. Though they are convenient and mobile, I will admit that. Purchasing a CD is a lot more satisfying to me than purchasing a download, which I just burn on to CD anyway. CDs are not perfect, but I'll stick with them.

Bah humbug.

PS I’m afraid I never embraced Minidiscs, so no comment there I’m afraid, though when’s the last time anyone came across one?