Richmond Fontaine The High Country Review

Album. Released 2011.  

BBC Review

Enhances Richmond Fontaine’s standing as one of their genre’s premier attractions.

Chris White 2011

Many pop musicians have flirted successfully with literature over the years – think Leonard Cohen or Patti Smith for example – and Richmond Fontaine front man Willy Vlautin is another who is equally adept with a guitar or a pen in his hand. His debut novel, The Motel Life, is currently being adapted into a motion picture starring Stephen Dorff and Kris Kristofferson.

Vlautin’s books are essentially extended versions of his work with Richmond Fontaine since the mid-1990s. Snapshots of the chaotic lives of a motley crew of drifters, alcoholics, gamblers and other ne’er do wells scraping an existence across rural America, the Oregon native’s oeuvre will be familiar to anyone who has a passing acquaintance with Charles Bukowski or Raymond Carver. The High Country sees him revisiting the song-novel approach that worked so well on 2004’s Post to Wire, a record that remains the group’s crowning achievement.

After a couple of disappointing, disjointed albums in recent years, The High Country feels like a definite return to form. Set in a remote logging community, the songs here tell the tale of two young lovers seeking to escape the claustrophobic small town world they inhabit. Sparse and cinematic, with snippets of radio and spoken word passages, this is Richmond Fontaine at their most austere and vulnerable, with only a couple of songs – Lost in the Trees, The Escape – turning up the amps to mirror the urgency of the narrative.

In general, the central story is effectively drawn, with an early trilogy of songs in particular – Let Me Dream of the High Country, The Mechanic Falls in Love With the Girl and The Mechanic’s Life – giving us a real insight into the lives and feelings of the two main characters. Singer Deborah Kelly provides a welcome female contrast to Vlautin’s throaty drawl, and the fragile acoustic guitars, occasional slide guitar and violin deliver just the right sonic backdrop.

If there’s one criticism to be directed at The High Country, it’s that it lacks a couple of killer tunes, like Post to Wire’s Always on the Ride and Alison Johnson, to lift it up a level from consistently good to outstanding. But it’s still a slice of superior Americana that enhances Richmond Fontaine’s standing as one of the genre’s premier attractions.

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