The High Country
Mainman Willy Vlautin returns to the high country of the northwest US for the 10th album by Richmond Fontaine. This, we are told, is “more than a concept record. This is a song-novel:a fully realised novel-sized story set to music.” And again, with pulse racing, this “is an extraordinarily eccentric album like no other”.
So what we're dealing with here is a serious cultural advance, new territory, the dreaded "uncharted waters". Except, of course, it isn't. The old-fashioned concept album is, according to my dictionary, "a rock album featuring a cycle of songs expressing a particular theme or idea". There are a host of celebrated examples, from fact-based folk operas such as Fairport Convention's Babbacombe Leeto more fictional themes such as Bowie's Ziggy Stardust and the Spidersfrom Mars. More recent purveyors include those bright boys in The Decemberists.
In fact, Vlautin and friends, adroitly directed by producer John Askew, have created a model example of the concept genre with tension, intrigue, well-drawn characters and a complex plot involving rejection, lust, jealousy, drugs, paranoia, guns and a number of other colourful traits of modern life. Can it end any way other than badly? But the getting there is a joy, so to speak.
Vlautin’s songs hang together really well, with folk, grunge and country influences plus lots of moody settings. Deborah Kelly, on loan from The Damnations, sings the female roles with great feeling and provides an ideal contrast to Vlautin’s more cracked vocals.
The storyline is standard Vlautin territory: a Manichean tale of innocence and evil, of small-time people with big-time problems living and dying in a rollercoaster world where even nature, in the guise of the dark forest, has a dualist quality. There are 17 tracks, some just short atmospheric interludes with dialogue, but songs such as The Chainsaw Sea, Let Me Dream of the High Countryand The Meeting on the Logging Roadwork outside the context of the album.
While the stripped-back narrative has to cover much ground, thereby forcing the listener to pull together the different strands of the story, there is a natural pace to Vlautin’s vivid storytelling that, allied to the music, gives it real sustained energy. In short, it works. See richmond fontaine.com
Download tracks: The Chainsaw Sea, Let Me Dream of the High Country