Let’s do away with the formalities and cut to the quick: This is an exciting record. Not only because the songs are great (which they are), but because it sounds like the arrival of a band with many years of great songs ahead. This Portland trio, led by singer and guitar player Willy Vlautin, has crafted 12 sing-a-long tales of catharsis and dysfunction, a formidable road map of destinations Carveresque.
From the “well lit halls” of the college grounds in “Settle” to the “pale green walls” of the “Wagonwheel Motel”, Vlautin leaves a rich trail of evocative images that is at turns both memorable and ambiguous, much of it revealing itself only after repeated listens. Though it is occasionally painstaking to try and make out lyrics or cull meaning from entire songs, ultimately this lends itself well to the durability of the record.
For the most part, it’s a fairly raw recording, with the guitar squall out front giving it a homemade, garagey feel. It is also a remarkably consistent, even record. At one time or another, all of its 12 songs have been lodged in my subconscious.
Drummer Stuart Gaston and bassist Dave Harding provide an enthusiastic and compelling backbone for the songs and complement the playing of Vlautin, who strums or pummels his treble-heavy guitar and veers away from solos. Occasional acoustic guitars or pedal steel pop up as well, and “Kid Steps Out Into the Road” benefits from some pleasant, lazy banjo. But “Kid…” is also characteristically deceiving. While the music jangles along happy-go-lucky, Vlautin tells of a kid who “steps out into the road / And duct-tapes three M-80s to his head / And then he lights ’em / Brother watches from the barbershop window / While he gets his hair cut / From a guy who touches his legs / Touches his arms / Says sex things, says ’em in his ear / The luck of the Irish / Reno, Nevada.”
In addition to their visual quality, Vlautin’s songs have a natural, conversational manner. He begins the disc singing “Dayton, Ohio / Never even heard of it / Don’t know where it is, exactly,” and at the end is recounting receiving a call “from a payphone in Watsonville / It’s nighttime / I hear cars in the background / Voice is trembling / It’s been two months and I can’t sleep anymore.”
Throughout the alcoholism, fire setting, infidelity, rape, robbery, failing/failed relationships, prescription drug abuse, and attempted suicides, few, if any, of the characters who inhabit these songs find redemption. Vlautin acknowledges this when he sings, “Lost under neon / Can’t seem to find my way out,” then later concedes, “Don’t even want to find my way out.” The redemption lies in the music.