Sometimes I’m just late to the party. When I was in high school I figured out that I was in love with a girl about two days before I found out I was going to be moving out of town. I just never let myself notice her until it was too late. That brings me to Richmond Fontaine.
I first heard the name because of a poster that my musical partner of the past few years had up in his house. He is a big fan of the band and that alone should have been enough to compel me to seek them out but for some reason I didn’t.
I have had the pleasure of seeing Richmond Fontaine guitarist Dan Eccles play, supporting some amazing artists such as Fernando and Michael Dean Damron. Eccles is an incredibly talented guitarist. He plays with a perfect blend of emotive and tasteful style, flashy enough to impress your average concert attendee but with a depth that has left every musician I know in awe. And yet I still didn’t check out the band he was best known for. I was never in a rush because I figured I had all the time in the world. Wrong again.
“You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing to Go Back To” is last call for Richmond Fontaine. It’s the end of the party and dammit I just got here. After twenty years and more than ten albums they’ve reached the end of their road. This album is the first one of theirs that I have heard, and it’s left me wanting more. I think they did that on purpose.
The album sets an immediate tone with the gentle instrumental “Leaving Bev’s Miners Club at Dawn.” What follows is an exploration of the feeling of being late to the party but wanting it to continue; wishing you had tried harder, pushed more, made it there on time but also accepting that you didn’t. In resignation, not anger. This has happened before, maybe it happens almost every night. The yearning for a different outcome remains, though.
Early on the album on, Willy Vlautin sings, “Let’s hit one more place / before we go home / let’s go in when it’s dark / come out with the sun”. He knows the night is a failure as always, but it never hurts to try. Some writers use geography to describe the emotions they want to convey with their songs, Vlautin uses characters to explore that landscape instead. He drags you straight into that world instead of leaving you to observe it from behind the glass.
Musically this album feels like a summer record to me, a perfect mate to the twilight of the season, with desolate but consenting lyrics and music that is mournful without wallowing. On this record Richmond Fontaine sounds like the band I wish Wilco had become, maybe what they should have become. It’d be easy to label it alt.country, but it’s more clearly just excellent songcraft.
Along with the tremendous guitar work from Eccles there are some beautifully subtle bass parts from Freddy Trujillo, just the right amount of aching pedal steel from Paul Brainard, propelling but not overpowering drums from Sean Oldham (especially on “A Night in the City”) and exquisite keyboard flourishes from guest Jenny Conlee. All of this builds a perfect bed for Vlautin’s yearning but assured vocals. As is always my test, I need to believe a singer in order to believe a song, and I’m absolutely buying what Willy Vlautin is selling.
I hope you weren’t late to the Richmond Fontaine party like I was. But, if you are at least we get the sheer joy of starting at the end of the story and working our way back to see where this all started.
Check out their latest and final album, “You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing to Go Back To”, out now on Fluff and Gravy Records. And if the band comes through your town any time soon, make sure you catch them. Let’s hit one more show before the party is over.