A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
June 8, 2007
In some respects, Thirteen Cities, the new album by the Portland, Ore.-based band Richmond Fontaine, sounds like a soundtrack record. Not for a movie; maybe for a book. Fontaine singer Willy Vlautin is a novelist whose book, The Motel Life, was recently published by Harper Perennial.
The title of the book is referenced in the song “Westward Ho”: “The Rancho and Sutro, the Time Zone and don’t forget/The Everybody’s Inn or the Monte Carlo/Motel life ain’t much of a life, and a motel ain’t much of a home/But I found out years ago that a house ain’t either.”
I haven’t read the book, but if it’s anything like Thirteen Cities, it has to be a cross between Steinbeck, Bukowski, and — I dunno — Gram Parsons?
This album is a literary work in itself. It’s a song cycle (alt-country opera?) about that motel life — character sketches and short stories, mostly in first person, of drifters adrift in the American West. Vlautin strips away all romantic notions of the West, portraying a dusty, windblown world of truck drivers, aimless hitchhikers, fugitives, illegal immigrants, tough bars, and mixed-up kids.
Musically the band sounds something like Wilco (Vlautin’s voice calls to mind Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy) colored by Calexico. There are reasons for that. Calexico’s Joey Burns plays bass and accordion on some songs, and that band’s Jacob Valenzuela lends his trumpet on some numbers. The album was recorded in Tucson, Ariz., so it’s only natural that local alt-rock godfather and Giant Sand-man Howe Gelb guests on piano on one song. There’s lots of moody steel guitar, giving a ghostly edge to sad melodies.
After a short instrumental prelude, Thirteen Cities’ first full-fledged song, “Moving Back Home #2,” with its quick rhythm and blaring trumpets, is more upbeat than most of the others, but the lyrics set the emotional mood. The narrator has been living in his mother’s basement, constantly bickering with her, and losing money at off-track betting. He is sitting on top of a parking garage and contemplating suicide. You know he won’t be in Mom’s house much longer, but there’s no real hope that a change of scenery will improve his outlook.
The characters in these songs don’t burn, burn, burn like Kerouac’s mad highway angels. They’re sad refugees from oppressors who are never quite identified, seeking some better place that’s most likely a desert mirage.
"I started having dreams of the desert so real they haunted me/Always sunny and never gray no noise just wind and sage,” Vlautin sings in one song. “I began taking vacation days and driving out as far as I could/The people around me said I drew away that a ghost I became.”
One song, “$87 and a Guilty Conscience That Gets Worse the Longer I Go,” takes place partly in New Mexico. It starts out at a boxing match in Albuquerque. “The referee wouldn’t stop the bout/The kid’s blood hit the fifth row ... that was the night I gave up the fights.” The narrator and his traveling companion encounter an overturned semitrailer on Interstate 25 near Las Cruces. “We pushed in the windshield and pulled the guy out/ We left him on the side of the road/My friend said we had to leave before the cops showed/What he’d done I didn’t know.”
By the next verse the travelers are in Arizona, where they pick up a teenage hitchhiker. "Saddest eyes and rotten teeth/Said she was only 16.” The narrator’s friend stops at a motel and gets a room for himself and the girl — an act that outrages the narrator and effectively ends the friendship. You don’t know whether it’s moral outrage or jealousy. All you know is that he feels guilty when he calls the police.
Vlautin looks at the ugly current that rages inside the national immigration debate on a song called “The Disappearance of Ray Norton.” It’s spoken-word song over a wistful backdrop of guitar, bass, and clarinet; in it the narrator tells of a friend who hated Mexicans. “He started going on and on about it, how they’re all moving in, buying and renting all the houses around us, how they’re ruining the property values, how they’re ruining everything. He’d get real upset about it, start saying crazy things.” Ray, the friend, moves in with “a group of guys ... they all had shaved heads and tattoos.” That arrangement ends badly and eventually Ray disappears, shunned by his father, his employer, and his ex-girlfriend. But you get the feeling that the next time anyone hears of Ray Norton, it’s going to be tragic and ugly.
Immigration is the subject of another song, “I Fell Into Painting Houses in Phoenix, Arizona.” The narrator quits his job when he realizes an undocumented co-worker was stiffed by his employers for five days of work. The song ends with reflections on headlines dealing with “a family left in the trunk of a car, or a family abandoned in the desert alone.”
There’s a ray of hope in the upbeat “Four Walls.” The narrator is in love and wants nothing to do with anything from the outside world: “We’ll just lay around and our hearts will sing like mariachis.”
But that mood quickly dissolves in the last song, “Lost in This World,” in which Vlautin moans over Burns’ stark piano, “I barely know where I am/I’m sorry I ain’t called you in days/Maybe I’ll never get over Wes and the hospital/And now I don’t even have bus fare home.”
But you know he’s out there on some highway in Utah or Wyoming, nursing a beer and a broken heart, sweeping the floor in some back-road joint, playing the horses, and wondering if he’ll ever get back home — living the motel life and wondering how long it’s going to last.
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