“Bill’s Picks” is a new column we’ll feature right here on our blog each week featuring a new release selected and reviewed by our smartest employee, William Boyle–known as Bill to most folks. Bill is from Brooklyn, NY but lives in Oxford now. He is the author of the novel GRAVESEND and the story collection DEATH DON’T HAVE NO MERCY. You can find him behind the counter at the record store on Sundays and Mondays. You can buy his books at Square Books in Oxford.
Read Bill’s Picks below…
Richmond Fontaine’s You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing to Go Back To is a hell of a last act for the band. They’ve been a model of consistency for twenty-two years, but circumstances have forced them to call it quits. And, as the greats tend to do, they’ve ended things gracefully, making one of their best records.
To be clear: I’d follow Willy Vlautin anywhere. He’s my favorite novelist (please go read The Motel Life, Northline, Lean On Pete, and The Free, if you haven’t) and one of my favorite songwriters, up in the top tier for me with Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Bob Dylan, Shane MacGowan, Bruce Springsteen, Jason Molina, and Neko Case. No one these days does story-songs like Vlautin. Imagine the Springsteen of Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River mixed with the John Doe of early X and throw in some of Dead Moon’s reckless spirit, and you’ll begin to understand where Vlautin is coming from.
Genre-wise, the music isn’t easily classifiable. Richmond Fontaine often gets tucked neatly into the Americana section, but I think that does them a disservice. Country Noir is closer to the truth. Really, though, they’re the band playing on the corner stage of some sad casino while a broken down gambler spends his last grand on a card game and a leathery showgirl drinks vodka tonics on the arm at the bar while watching the races. If that sounds good to you, well then, you’ll strike gold here.
When asked where to start with Richmond Fontaine, I usually point folks to Post to Wire, but you can’t really go wrong and this would actually be a perfect place to start too. Don’t be intimidated by the cast of characters. Many of them show up in previous Richmond Fontaine songs and Vlautin is, in effect, giving them their endings, but that doesn’t mean you’ll feel lost; these songs, on the contrary, definitely function as standalones, even if their overall feel is novelistic.
Vlautin’s voice is at its lonesomest here. When he makes proclamations like “Let’s hit one more place / before we go home,” it wraps up the hope and despair inherent in any life on the margins. His songs are peopled with wrecks and fuck-ups whose best memories involve going on drunks for days and never fighting, whose biggest hopes are that their pals don’t run on out on them when they’re sleeping. These are men and women who are perpetually on the ropes. “My mom worked in an office down that street / You could always see her on her break on the back steps, smoking / Dressed up and worried, she was always broke and worried about everything,” the narrator of “I Can’t Black It Out If I Wake Up and Remember” laments. As in his books, Vlautin can knock you down and lift you up at the same time. He gives you these quiet, gut-punch moments. And he’s a master of details. Take the character in “Whitey and Me” with the “I stole more than I ever gave” tattoo on the back of his hand.
Time doesn’t mean anything to Vlautin’s characters. How can it when you’re “already sinking at 16, 19, and 20,” as is the case with the bad luck brothers of “Three Brothers Roll into Town.” The narrator of “I Got Off the Bus” tells us: “I know what you abandon dies / What you leave leaves you too / I know you can’t go back / if there’s nothing to go back to.” These songs deal with defeat, sure, but there’s always some possibility off in the distance, some chance of staying clean, not fucking up, living right. “Do you think an easy run will find me?” the narrator of “Easy Run” asks, a desperate prayer for good luck. It’s a perfect note to end Richmond Fontaine on.
My favorite tracks: “Wake Up Ray,” “Whitey and Me (Don’t Ride Him Down),” “Let’s Hit One More Place,” “Don’t Skip Out On Me,” “Tapped Out in Tulsa,” “A Night in the City,” and “Easy Run”