Don’t be surprised to see a book on the shelves of your local bookstore penned by Willy Vlautin sometime soon. Vlautin is an accomplished short-story writer who also happens to front Portland’s Richmond Fontaine (Richmond and Fontaine are characters in one of Vlautin’s stories). Miles From is the band’s second record, and although they have slowed the pace of their songs considerably, the storytelling is no less compelling.
The record begins with “Trembling Leaves”, which soon finds its subject stuffed in the trunk of a car, and ends with “Concussion”, in which the main character steals his uncle’s Peterbilt and drives it into a retaining wall, then walks home to nurse broken bones and “wait for the inevitable retribution.” Inhabitants of the songs inbetween don’t fare much better: found face down with blurred vision, handcuffed and bloodied, stuck in collapsing relationships and, perhaps worst of all, without hope.
The detail Vlautin uses in “Leaves” is a good example of what makes this record so interesting. In his hands, it’s not just a car the character gets into, it’s a “black two-door Ford sedan” with “a rust hole in the trunk” where he can “smell exhaust fumes from the engine and see the snow blow by.” Stuart Gaston’s drumming gives the effect of a funeral march; elsewhere, the snare roll that begins “Concussion” sounds like a firing squad is being readied for the execution of its protagonist.
“Give Me Time” is probably the catchiest song here, with Paul Brainard’s beautiful pedal steel playing and its singalong chorus, “Give me boilermakers and give me time/That’s not so crippled and clouded by you.” In fact, the use of pedal steel is the biggest change from Richmond Fontaine’s first record, enabling them to flesh out some longer, aching instrumental passages. For his part, Vlautin prefers pummeling to soloing when it comes to expressing emotion with his guitar.
Although Vlautin’s limited voice occasionally strains for notes, this effectively serves to make him more believable. You’ll also be consulting the lyric sheet often, mostly because the words are so good that you don’t want to miss anything.