Review Summary: Abduct Wilco, chuck them in the back of a van, drive them to a ghost town in the middle of the desert, force 'em to record at gunpoint, take due care to ensure the only contact they have with the outside world are some choice local news clippings...ta-da!
Willy Vlautin, chief song writer and front man for Portland alt country act Richmond Fontaine, is one of those hyper-creative artists equally prolific in a number of different mediums; in the last ten years he’s released five albums with Richmond Fontaine, another with his female-fronted country soul outfit The Delines and he's also found time to write four acclaimed Americana novels. Vlautin has cultivated a gritty aesthetic that translates across all his work; he’s interested in the small lives that get swallowed up in the great dust bowl of the Western United States, those individuals on the bottom rung of the social and economic ladder who feel trapped and hopelessly cast adrift. Call him the patron saint of lost souls if you like.
‘Thirteen Cities’ is a typical Vlautin enterprise; as usual his meticulously crafted words take top billing. His concerns are the everyday horrors you encounter in the backwaters of America; the sexual exploitation of a 16 year old girl with the ‘saddest eyes and rotten teeth’; a family left in the boot of a car in the desert to die; a man who was last seen hanging out with a gang of neo-Nazis before mysteriously vanishing; a work crew picking up an illegal immigrant to help on a few jobs then mugging him off with no pay. These tales of woe aren’t told from the viewpoint of the perpetrator, rather we hear them recounted from spectators standing away at a relatively safe distance. Whether they’re a friend, lover or some other associate these individuals rarely intervene directly, the implication being they understand only too well that straight up confrontation will only lead to even bigger problems for all concerned. Instead these characters go about doing what they can quietly and without thanks; they call in the rape from a payphone; they quit their paid job rather than support the exploitation of immigrants. Somehow despite everything the conscience remains undiminished.
The music on Richmond Fontaine albums is secondary to the lyrics, in terms of the balance between the two think 75% words and 25% music; here pop hooks play second fiddle to the imperative task of weaving all-enveloping atmospheres that match Willy’s stories. This is not to take anything away from the music presented on ‘Thirteen Cities’, at this stage of the game the band are veterans of their craft and know exactly what’s required of them; whether conjuring up the evocative desert vibes of ‘A Ghost I Became’ or kicking up some dust on livelier material like ‘Capsized’ and ‘Four Walls’ everything’s expertly rendered.
With all the talk of racetracks, gambling dens, amateur boxing pits, cheap bars and decrepit motels listening to Richmond Fontaine albums can feel akin to embarking on a ‘Post Office’ road trip only now you get the chance to kick that cranky drunk Bukowski to the kerb to free up space for a far more agreeable travelling companion in Vlautin. What both these writers have in common is the understanding that there’s a certain romance to the neglected corners of America and the down on their luck characters who populate them, though the fact this band are far more popular outside of their native country implies these surroundings lose some of their magic lustre outside of a pair of headphones. ‘Thirteen Cities’, great place to visit, wouldn’t want to live there.