Tracing the arc of Richmond Fontaine's career, you can't help but notice that while the band's sound has evolved from brash to more subdued, confessional-style country rock, its subject matter has essentially stayed the same. Fontaine's ethos was captured best by the title of a live album the band released last year, Whiskey, Painkillers & Speed. The new album, Winnemucca, is suffused with the ragged hopelessness such substances inevitably engender. The Portland, Oregon, band -- and particularly its lead singer, Willy Vlautin -- has always been captivated by the drifters, drunks and washouts who populate its songs. As songwriting material, this is a rich seam to mine. Fontaine's long, minor-key lead-ins and Vlautin's thin, shaky voice on songs like "Out of State" and "Northline" conjure an overwhelming sense of smallness that's underscored on tracks such as "Winner's Casino" by sudden swells of Paul Brainard's amazing pedal steel. Instrumentals like "Twyla" and "Patty's Retreat," while unremarkable on their own, add a mournfulness that complements the whole album. The juxtaposition between beautiful noise and broken silences -- along with Vlautin's singing, which recognizes no rhyme or meter -- creates a soul-weary atmosphere. Winnemucca is a musical embodiment of high-plains aimlessness and hopelessness so precisely rendered that there's nothing to do but sit back and wallow in it. Listeners can experience the material in a live setting when Richmond Fontaine appears at the Lion's Lair on March 1 and Boulder's Albums on the Hill on March 2.
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