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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

featuring the very best of americana, and roots music
February 18, 2018
Scott Foley, purveyor of shattered candy hearts

I recently asked someone what kind of music they enjoyed.  "Mostly soundtracks," they replied.  I find this a baffling answer. Does this mean that they just enjoy reliving the moments from John Hughes' Pretty in Pink to the sound of Ian McCulloch's earnest croon?  Or do they prefer the orchestral foofery of a John Williams score?  Do they crave dramatic instrumental bombast as the soundtrack for their Dungeons & Dragons battles?  Have they finally penned lyrics for "Telstar"?  Or what?

From Richmond FontaineDon't Skip Out on Me: the Record isn't necessarily designed to be played like a soundtrack to your experience of reading Willy Vlautin's book of the same name.  Unless you're a speed reader (not I), these songs are played and gone before you've reached the bottom of a page. Of course, Willy Vlautin isn't the first songwriter to drift in a literary direction.  Joe Pernice, Rosanne Cash, Nick Cave, Patti Smith, to name a couple. But more than these others, Willy Vlautin's written work has emerged as an organic extension of the band's music.  It  seems a fitting conclusion that Richmond Fontaine's final statement is a 100% instrumental collection where his voice is nowhere to be heard.  Instead, it emerges from between the covers of Don't Skip Out on Me: the Book.

Vlautin has flirted with elements of narrative and spoken word since early on in the band's run, reaching a high point with 2011's High Country.  He began publishing his books with 2006's Motel Life, followed by Northline, the superb Lean on Pete and 2014's The Free.  With each work, Vlautin's voice has become more distinct, his characters more familiar and endearing.  Things are tough for Frank and Jerry Lee, or for Charley, but they are each complete and real characters who strike readers as authentic, sympathetic and even admirable.  Vlautin's new novel resonates with similar notes, and his writing has grown richer and more confident.

Briefly, Don't Skip Out on Me tells the story of a young man who leaves his adopted Nevada home to pursue his dream of becoming a professional boxer.  In a wider sense, it is a story of identity and belonging.  Horace Hopper is part Irish and part Paiute, living with a sweet and generous older couple who raised him after his birth family was unable to do so.  Similar to his other stories, this one paints a distinctly American portrait without relying on flowery prose, moments of gratuitous epiphany or easy resolution.  As a result, Vlautin's prose can appear to some to be bone-dry or dispassionate, though his characters and his landscapes come to life through more subtle use of everyday language.  Whether it's the exceedingly decent father figure Mr Reese, or the retired and opinionated ranchers who gather around a table at the small town diner, these are people we know.  The homeless couple with whom Horace shares his dinner, the dishonest drunk he naively selects as a boxing coach - they are familiar, but Vlautin never resorts to cliche and refuses to strongarm the reader into adopting a stance of easy pathos or distrust.

Back to the record.  Is instrumental music simply incomplete?  Is it a song just waiting for lyrics?  Paul Brainard's expressive pedal steel serves as the "voice" for most of these pieces, though Vlautin's fingerprints are evident throughout. The strongest instrumentals can serve as a wordless narrative of sorts.  The sound of Don't Skip is evocative, suggesting a landscape or a lifestyle or a mood in the same way a painting or photo might.

"Horace Hopper" features Brainard's steel accompanied by guitar and piano on an easygoing piece that alternates between midtempo and more introspective moments.  The prevailing mood is one of space and solitude , with only a suggestion of sadness during those quieter passages.  Don't Skip Out on Me features some beautiful, yearning pieces, most notably on the shorter songs like "Back of the Pickup" or the melancholy harmonica of "Living Where You're Not Wanted".

Vlautin's novel is not characterized by action and adventure.  Even the back-and-forth melee of boxing matches is largely witnessed through Horace's perspective, both when he is engaged and when his mind wanders.  "Fight With Raymundo Figueroa" features the record's wildest moments, sometimes dissonant and raging.   More common are the upbeat and melodic tunes like "Horace and the Trophy" and the twangy, good-natured "Hector Hidalgo".  The band is fully engaged, with expressive playing that has sometimes been overlooked when it's been in service to Vlautin's vocals.

"Dream of the City and the City Itself" braids all of these elements into one song, including some phenomenal guitar interplay and the record's most musically dramatic score.  The band gallops enthusiastically through the first two-plus minutes, until the brakes are applied for a tender and tuneful second half.  Horace Hopper isn't necessarily a psychologically complex character, but "Dream of the City" aptly portrays the dual forces competing for the young man's passions.  The isolated countryside and the bustling city; the acceptance of his fate versus the strength of spirit to chart his own course.  Anyone in search of a pulpy beach read will want to steer clear of Don't Skip Out on Me.  Anyone hungry for superb contemporary Western writing should pick it up immediately.  And bring along the album as a worthy companion.

Also on this Episode, the Bonnevilles have arrived with just the powerful blast of punk 'n blues that we need to shove us from our seasonal phunk.  We celebrate as Trampled by Turtles awake from their hibernation.  And we recognize that it's just a matter of time before Anna Tivel reaches the heights of Courtney Marie Andrews, Julian Baker or Alela Diane.

- Bonnevilles, "Long Runs the Fox" Dirty Photographs  (Alive Naturalsound, 18)
- I Can Lick Any SOB in the House, "Regrets and Greyhounds" Menace  (In Music We Trust, 04)
- Sarah Shook & the Disarmers, "Good as Gold" Years  (Bloodshot, 18)
- Buffalo Tom, "All Be Gone" Quiet and Peace  (Schoolkids, 18)
- Anderson East, "Cabinet Door" Encore  (Elektra, 18)
- Blackberry Smoke, "Best Seat in the House" Find a Light  (3 Legged, 18)
- Dallas Moore, "Shoot Out the Lights" Mr Honky Tonk  (Sol, 18)
- Drive-by Truckers, "Decoration Day" Decoration Day  (New West, 03)
- Wade Bowen, "So Long 6th Street" Solid Ground  (Bowen Sounds, 18)  D
- Old Crow Medicine Show, "Flicker and Shine" Volunteer  (Columbia, 18)
- JD Wilkes, "Moonbottle" Fire Dream  (Big Legal Mess, 18)
- Trampled by Turtles, "Kelly's Bar" Life is Good on the Open Road  (Banjodad, 18)  D
- Tillers, "Dear Mother" Tillers  (Sofaburn, 18)
- Devil Makes Three, "North Carolina" Longjohns Boots & a Belt  (Kahn, 04)
- Lindi Ortega, "Lovers in Love" Liberty  (Shadowbox, 18)
- Great Peacock, "One Way Ticket" Gran Pavo Real  (Ropeadope, 18)
- First Aid Kit, "Rebel Heart" Ruins  (Columbia, 18)
- Ryan Adams, "Baby I Love You" single  (PaxAm, 18)  D
- Parker Millsap, "Pining" Very Last Day  (Okrahoma, 16)
- Shakey Graves, "Counting Sheep" Can't Wake Up  (Dualtone, 18)
- Anna Tivel, "Dust and Magic" single  (Fluff & Gravy, 18)  D
- Caleb Caudle, "Crushed Coins" Crushed Coins  (Cornelius Chapel, 18)
- Ruby Boots, "I'll Make It Through" Don't Talk About It  (Bloodshot, 18)
- HC McEntire, "Red Silo" Lionheart  (Merge, 18)
- Daddy, "Cadillac Problems" Let's Do This  (Daphne, 18)  D
- Doug Sahm & Tex Mex Trip, "Girls Today (Don't Like to Sleep Alone)" Groover's Paradise  (Warner, 74)
- Rod Picott, "Take Home Pay" Out Pasts the Wires  (Welding Rod, 18)
- I'm With Her, "Overland" See You Around  (Rounder, 18)
- Bettye LaVette, "It Ain't Me Babe" Things Have Changed  (Verve, 18)
^ Richmond Fontaine, "Hector Hidalgo" Don't Skip Out on Me  (Fluff & Gravy, 18)

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