Willy Vlautin, Richmond Fontaine’s singer and guitarist, writes songs with the precision and compression of great short stories. His spare and evocative words slip into the skins and minds of his outsider narrators with shape-shifting agility.
Winnemucca, the Portland, Oregon, band’s latest album, is haunted by wanderlust. A late-night interstate vibe wafts through the album, the song’s subjects mostly seeking not just a destination but refuge. They find it in Winnemucca, Nevada, a sleepy stopover, where they gamble and lose, and measure that loss.
“Winner’s Casino” opens the album with Paul Brainard’s pedal steel matching the longing in Vlautin’s voice. Heartsickness and the urge for escape on the open road run through the album’s atmospheric country-rock. It’s a gentler midtempo sound than on the band’s previous albums, but there is no sacrifice of power. In fact, the sonic edge seems heightened, with bassist Dan Harding and drummer Sean Oldham applying just the right pressure to the rhythm, moving from Sunday driver shuffle to a get-out-of-town clip, Vlautin’s guitar acting as the compass.
The instrumentals “Twyla” and “Pattie’s Retreat” give cinematic sweep to the pictures in Vlautin’s head, evincing the barren landscape that can switch between isolation and beauty. When Vlautin sings “you’ll be free” on the closing song, “Western Landscape”, it’s with the ambiguity that gives this album its heart.