The story of The Delines (so far) could almost be the plot line of one of their songs. A band gets together, records an album of slow burning hangdog songs and then, just as they’re about to record a second, the singer is terribly injured when struck by a car. End of story? Except that the story doesn’t end there. Singer Amy Boone received severe injuries in the incident and is still recovering her full mobility but, three years on, she has recovered enough to record with and tour with the band who have just ended a triumphant UK tour.
The Delines are, of course, a vehicle (sorry for that but there’s no other word really) for Willy Vlautin’s songs, replacing the much lamented Richmond Fontaine. Boone had come on board the Fontaine’s to sing her sister’s parts from their album The High Country on tour and her voice got Vlautin to thinking that she could be an excellent conduit for some songs he felt he couldn’t really carry off. It’s a thought that is now fully fledged as The Imperial is as grand a listen as one could hope for with Boone’s magnificent voice breathing life into Vlautin’s wounded souls.
Vlautin has often gravitated to the faded grandeur of motel life and The Imperial can be considered a successor to The Fitzgerald, both run down establishments where life is somewhat murky and on the edge. Whereas Richmond Fontaine’s tales were dry and dusty, the stories here are delivered in a lush style which recalls both Memphis blue eyed soul and Kurt Wagner’s languorous outings. It’s an album to be wallowed in, the songs washing over you, a torch lit procession of glossy keyboards, supple bass playing, tentative guitar licks, sweet pedal steel and warm horn arrangements. With Boone’s achingly evocative voice on top The Delines are just superb here.
And of course, there are the songs, or stories, all perfectly written miniatures capturing the lives of Vlautin’s characters. He also breathes life into them, describing sometimes mundane situations, sometimes more dire straits, life’s trials and tribulations, while offering them a degree of dignity even as their self respect or self esteem is zero. Listening to the album, you can almost believe that you know Charley or Eddie and Polly or Holly, the latter in particular the subject of a devastating portrait on Holly The Hustle which is a screenplay in itself. Two quotes from the songs might sum up the album as Boone almost whispers, “Cheer Up Charley” at the beginning, most of the subjects having little reason for cheer. And then the repeated refrain of, “The party never stops/So the pressure starts” in Eddie And Polly indicates that our heroes and heroines are doomed to repeat their mistakes, trapped in the world of The Imperial, a hotel where it does seem that you can never leave.
Fear not, this review is ABBA free. This Fernando is Fernando Viciconte, born in Argentina but commencing his musical journey in LA with Monkey Paw, a hard rock band, before moving to Portland, Oregon in 1994. Since then he’s released several solo albums which have variously visited his Latin roots, alt-country and “gauzy, narcotic songs with Latin and country-folk accents”. A health scare a few years back threatened his voice but he has thankfully recovered and recorded Leave The Radio On, the first of his albums (I think) to get a full UK release.
It’s getting so that Portland is the happening place to be in the States (actually, it may have been for some time and we’re just behind the curve here). Anyway, while fans of The Holy Modal Rounders will know of goings on eons ago, for the past decade or so it’s been a magnet for musicians, Peter Buck of REM the latest drawn to live there. We mention this as Fernando has a dream list of Portland musicians on the album. no surprise really when you consider that Willie Vlautin of Richmond Fontaine is on record as saying that Viciconte is “one of my all time favourite singer-songwriters”. Vlautin doesn’t appear here but Daniel Eccles and Freddie Trujillo from RF are both onboard along with Paul Brainard, Scott McCaughey and Mr. Buck himself who variously plays guitar, sitar and mandolin on eight of the 11 songs. In addition there’s another “unsung” Portland musician here in the shape of Lewi Longmire on guitars and keyboards. A long time associate of Fernando, Longmire also has a history with various Rounders and the esteemed Michael Hurley, so, nice to see him in here.
The album itself is a polished affair. Viciconte’s voice is high in the mix, his tremulous vocals recalling at times Bowie and Lennon. There’s little of his dusty Americana background although there’s a fine laid back vibe to the wonderful pedal steel and mandolin whorled Kingdom Come while the spectral White Trees oozes with a mysticism heightened by the simple ritualistic percussion, shadows gathering in the gloomy bass and subdued organ. Instead, we get the dark psychedelic soundscape of The Dogs, surely indebted to The Pretty Things in their lysergic days and the kaleidoscopic guitar tumblings of The Freak, a song that roots into Bowie’s 70’s paranoia (turn this one up loud). Buck’s presence isn’t flag posted throughout the album but it’s tempting to think that the churning guitar charge of Burned Out Love, a fantastic slice of power pop is a nod to him and Minus Five chap McCaughey. Turns out that the guitar here is handled by Fernando’s co-producer Luther Russell but it certainly hits the heights, a glorious addition to the canon of sun kissed guitar pop. Fernando certainly knows his way around a hook, the opening and closing songs here both memorable slices of dark melodic rock with shades of The Dream Syndicate and The Church lurking in there. Finally, there’s the odd seeming combination of Fernando sounding like Bowie on El Interior. Here, glistening guitars lead one into a twilight zone, an infra red desert, the singer stranded, his thoughts clouded by the intrusive Mariachi band. Whether Fernando intended this or not the song is a fine summation of the gin sozzled Thomas Jerome Newton damned in New Mexico. A wonderful song.
Good news is that Fernando is appearing near you soon as he is supporting Richmond Fontaine on their farewell tour. Dates are here.
Sometimes it seems that Portland, Oregon is poised to be the next “happening” city in the good ole’ UsofA. Home to Foghorn Stringband, The Water Tower Bucket Boys, Blitzen Trapper, Alela Diane and Richmond Fontaine among others when one looks into it Portland has been the next happening place for many years. Quiet and unassuming it seems to just get on with it without ever aspiring to the notoriety of the likes of Nashville or Austin. I’ve never been there so this might just be a random notion but one gets the impression that a place that has been like a second home to the likes of the Holy Modal Rounders and Ken Kesey must have something going for it.
Anyway, the above is a bit of a meandering introduction to The James Low Western Front who are indeed Portland based and also, in their own way, quiet and unassuming. Led by the titular James Low they are basically an alt country outfit much in the way that Richmond Fontaine are and this is reinforced by the presence of Paul Brainard on pedal steel. Having said that Low is quite different from Willy Vlautin. While Vlautin excels in his portraits of an American underclass, drifting, out of work, at times desperate, Low attempts to paint a picture of a class that despite their own difficulties still have aspirations. However the overall picture here is of a siege mentality, a constant struggle to achieve. Whereas Vlautin’s characters’ are constantly on the move here the protagonists appear paralysed, waiting and hoping for things to get better. On Thinking California Low sings “ I know she wants to leave here, There’s nothing I can do but promise we’ll get better before the year is through.”
All of this is delivered in a sweet country veined manner, for the most part laid back as in the fine Words and Thinking California. A dry and dusty low key bunch of songs with pedal steel, Dobro and keyboards supporting the basic guitars and Low’s attractive vocals it’s a fine set.
Troubadour time as North Carolina resident Dave Desmelik pours out his emotions on this spare but elegantly played disc. Desmelik plays most of the instruments himself, guitars, piano, banjo, pump organ, snare drum and “heartbeat.” Some very sweet lap steel guitar by Josh Gibbs embroiders several of the songs while Andy Gibbon supplies bass but in the main it’s a one-man show. At times its pared to the bone as on the title song which features just voice, piano and that heartbeat with some ambient noise towards the end. The song itself, Deep Down The Definition is a superb existentialist lament that benefits from Desmelik’s wearied vocal. Throughout the album he portrays an outsider’s viewpoint of life and the trials and tribulations it throws up with little in the way of empathy. As he sings on the excellent Burn It All Away “pull yourself up by your bootstraps, there are no more roadmaps, you finish and then begin.” Sung over a simple strummed guitar with melancholic lap steel keening in the background this is a great song that begs to be listened to over and over again, mesmerising and at times reminiscent of Richmond Fontaine’s better moments.
Desmelik reinforces the idea of the individual over the collective on Howard Roark where he pays tribute to the protagonist of Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead. However the following song Success highlights the emptiness of such successes as achieved by the likes of Roark although the melange of styles employed within the song indicates a degree of internal confusion. This is compounded by the stark love song Picture in a Frame where he sings of a lost, perhaps dead companion who saw him “at my best and in my darkest place, you were the only one I’d allow into this space.”
In case this gives the impression that the album is a miserablilst collection of dour misanthropic gripes one has to state that several of the songs are upbeat, at least in their delivery. Pulling For You is a frisky love letter, Well and Smooth has a glorious vamp to it despite the pessimism in the lyrics while Standing Still has some fine rumbling electric guitar. In addition Desmelik arranges the spare instrumentation with a velvet touch which at times is sublime. The bare boned He Gave All He Had is devastating in its dark beauty while Cemetery is a portrait of a man bereft of emotion but is delivered in a fascinating mix of low key country and John Fahey type guitar wizardry.
Almost a song cycle of life and death and the little that matters in between this is a great album that recalls the likes of Richard Thompson and Richmond Fontaine in its downbeat and occasionally bitter sense.
With their latest album “We Used To Think The Freeway Sounded Like A River” Willie Vlautin and chums seem sure to be in the top album of the year lists so beloved by us bloggers. On their tour to promote the album they pulled into the local BBC studios to record a session. You can catch it on the Radio Scotland website at Another Country but here’s one of the songs they played, “The Boyfriends.”