Release Date: 22 May 2007 (Union / El Cortez Records)
Richmond Fontaine’s Thirteen Cities is an incredible album. Deep within the layers of guitars, horns, pianos, lap steel, and organs there are eloquent and expressive stories of despair, alcohol, and redemption. Full of real life imagery, this album captures a mood and style rarely reenacted in musical form.
His pen scratched endlessly on the pad of paper. His cigarette burned away. He’d only taken two or three drags on it. It would end up a curled string of ashes before the writer would take a break from his stream of consciousness. In this dim lit bar there were a few booths with yellow lamps above them. In the late afternoon, after work, the writer sat in one of those booths with a pitcher of beer, his notebook, some pens, and a few personal belongings.
His latest collection of stories was an attempt of writing Southwestern stories in a Raymond Carver style. Where Carver’s stories represent the blue collar, white-bred lifestyle of a struggling class of Americans, our author was writing a new set of stories about grappling with daily life in modern Southwest America. Western America always seems to hold the ideals of the future. The writer was trying to encapsulate the country’s prospects with a backdrop of lives that are struggling to make ends meet.
On a different day, he would put a collection of quarters into the jukebox and let the music guide his pen. Today he had headphones on and was listening to Thirteen Cities by Richmond Fontaine.
The album was full of lap steel guitar, honky tonk pianos, trumpets, accordions, and steel string integrity. It was the perfect music to inspire tales about the land between interstates 10, 80, 25, and 15. The lyrics were descriptive and imaginative. They told tales of drifters, drunkards, and delinquents.
The writer had a wealth of inspiration in these songs. “Moving Back Home #2” had a fast paced, rolling snare drum keeping the beat while the Calexico horns provided an iridescent accompaniment. Not much says “Welcome To The Southwest” quite like the horns of Calexico. The character in the song moved back into his mom’s basement. Back in his old town, he seemed to feel like a shadow. “I’m sitting in the vacant lot again/ Staring up at those power line towers/ Store fronts have changed/ They all got different names/ But I have moved back/ And I’m still in the same.” Ultimately, he’s “Just trying to find the sun coming up somewhere.”
Few albums have ever given such quick and evocative characterizations as Thirteen Cities. The songs allowed the writer get into the mindset of composing direct, plainspoken stories of life’s labors.
“$87 And A Guilty Conscience That Gets Worse The Longer I Go” was about a desire for redemption. In between the rich, jazzy guitar tones and the airy lap steel nuances, the lyrics told a descriptive story of traveling through New Mexico with a destructive person. The first verse, Albuquerque, was about how “That was the night I gave up the fight.” The second verse, towards Las Cruces, told the story of pulling a guy out of flipped over semi. But they had to run before the cops showed up, at the request of narrator’s companion. “What he’d done I didn’t know.” He might begin to understand the accompanying traveler’s past in the third verse, 20 miles outside of Yuma. Picking up a teenage girl, the outlaw companion took her to a motel room. And the storyteller has “a guilty conscience the longer I go.” Without specifically detailing what happened, the song gave all the pieces for the listener to assemble the picture.
The fast strumming of an acoustic guitar was the rhythm of “I Fell Into Painting Houses In Phoenix, Arizona.” The harmonica and guitar were reminiscent of an early Bob Dylan song or a Kevn Kinney tune. The dusty voice of lead singer Willy Vlautin recounted the story of painting houses in the suburbs of the Valley of the Sun. After using a 19-year-old kid as a painter for 5 days, they ditched him before payday. “Well I didn’t show up the next day/ I ain’t shit but I ain’t that way.” He moved on, he tried what he could to get by, but by the end of the song he desperately repeated “Get me out of here get me out get me out of here.”
Thirteen Cities even addressed the immigration issues of the Southwest. “The Disappearance Of Ray Norton” put the talking style of Todd Snider overtop of Son Volt ballad music as Willy Vlautin chronicled the decline of Ray Norton. From childhood friend to angry racist, Ray Norton slowly vanished. Norton had a good girlfriend, a job, and lived with his father. As more Mexicans moved into the neighborhood, “He’d get real upset about it and start saying crazy things/ So… I quit calling him.” His girlfriend left him. He moved in with some skinheads. Norton’s father became “ashamed and he’d get real upset and say he didn’t know what to do.” Eventually, Ray Norton lost his job and didn’t have a place to live. “That kid ended up living in the back of his truck/ He did that until winter.” Then, no one saw him again.
The writer filled his notebook as he remembered to drink from his pitcher and occasionally light another smoke for a few drags. His attention was set on the stories in his mind. And Richmond Fontaine easily guided his mind.
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