This isn't because the music isn't good; it's just that songwriter Willy Vlautin's songs are more like short stories. As an English major, it makes me think more of reading story collections in college by guys like Ernest Hemingway or Russell Banks than anything I've heard on a spinning piece of plastic.
This all begins to make sense, though, when you consider that Vlautin is also a novelist. His books The Motel Life (2006) and Northline (2008) were both critically acclaimed, with the movie rights to each being optioned.
But Vlautin has been a literate and critically acclaimed songwriter for much longer than he's been a novelist. We Used to Think ... is Richmond Fontaine's ninth album, and the band has been together for over a decade.
On the new album, Vlautin's stark realism and husky vocals are cast over some excellent country-tinged rock.
"The Boyfriends" tells the story of a guy who goes home with a divorcee, only to find her kid staring him in the face in the middle of the night. The event makes causes him to remember his mother's boyfriends when he was a childhood, some nice and others not so nice.
The whole experience has Vlautin screaming "I ain't like that/I ain't gonna be like that!"
"The Pull" and "43" are likewise downers. In the former, a recovering alcoholic becomes a professional boxer until injuries drive him out of the sport. In the latter, a divorced father falls behind on paying for his mother in a home and child support, so he starts selling drugs.
Vlautin's lyrics put into words the side of life few of us want to think about.
The album's strong point, though, is "You Can Move Back Here." A happy song it is not, but at least it's hopeful. Written for Vlautin's brother, the song is about someone who has moved away to the big city. Vlautin invites him back from the "city subways that run all night."
For anyone who comes from nowhere, Vlautin voices the upside of returning home: "At least you'll have the western sky and me on your side."
What does home have if not nice scenery and the people you love?
My spin: B
You won't be hearing Richmond Fontaine anytime soon. This music isn't for everyone. But for anyone who can look at the trouble life offers and tries to make something out of it, We Used to Think the Freeway Sounded Like a River just might make sense.
Vlautin isn't a polished singer, but he shouldn't be to tell this story. He and bandmates Dan Eccles, Sean Oldham and Dave Harding lay down an eclectic set of tracks that provide a bit of beauty in spite of bleak realities.
Sometimes we live in a broken world. This band doesn't sugarcoat that fact.
We Used to Think the Freeway Sounded Like a River
Richmond Fontaine is: Willy Vlautin-vocals, guitar; Sean Oldham-drums, vocals; Dave Harding-bass; Dan Eccles-guitars
Additional players: Collin Oldham-cello, cellomobo; Paul Brainard-pedal steel, trumpet; Ralph Huntley-piano.
Producer: JD Foster
Released: Oct. 13