Thursday, April 12, 2012

Album Review: Richmond Fontaine – The Fitzgerald

After the critical success of Post to Wire, Richmond Fontaine took a typically idiosyncratic step for 1995’s follow-up The Fitzgerald.  They stripped out most of the elements that contributed to Post to Wire’s success.  So gone are all the uptempo songs, most of the electric guitars and above all, Paul Brainard’s steel guitar. 
Replacing these is a series of stripped down, spare songs, which are almost all bleak as f**k.  Second track, The Welhorn Yards is a prime example of this, a beautiful melody picked out by a bone-dry guitar and Willy Vlautin’s harrowing lyrical imagery “I fell into the uneasiest of sleeps, the worst nightmares of sleeps.  A madman came after me, his hair was on fire, his eyes were bleeding and he said he was gonna kill me.”  Amazingly this isn’t merely a depressing song, but a pared-down gem.
It’s followed by the slightly more propulsive, though no less bleak Black Road, a desperate tale of “the alcoholics and the ruined and the framed”, and some highly effective backing vocals.  It’s difficult for the band to maintain this level of intensity over the whole album, though they make a fair fist of it on the piano-enhanced The Incident at Conklin Creek.  In the main, guitars are plucked rather than strummed, drums are brushed rather than beaten.
If anything can be called upbeat here, it’s two tracks, the Tex-Mex strum of Exit 194B and nervous strums of Don’t Look and It Won’t Hurt, the latter reminiscent of some of the material on Winnemucca.  At times the sparseness of the material shows up some of the band’s failings, such as Vlautin’s vocals (on Laramie, Wyoming) and some underwritten songs (The Janitor).
But these are minor complaints.  This album is about telling a story and creating a mood, and dealing with that.  The whole thing is brought together by the final track, the gorgeously sparse three minutes of Making It Back.  It’s Willy Vlautin alone with his guitar and bottles at 3am with only the Pogues to keep him company (“Summer in Siam plays on repeat again, we never get sick of it”).  Alone that is, except for his love (“now that I’m in your arms again… there’s no one else I can talk to”).  The track finishes with a beautifully picked guitar coda, almost reminiscent of The Smiths’ Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want.
After the track finishes we’re left with only silence.  There’s nothing more can be said.