There aren’t many musicians telling stories like Willy Vlautin these days. The front-man of Richmond Fontaine and acclaimed novelist Vlautin has won many fans over the past few years with his own brand of rugged, murky Americana. Uncut Magazine once proclaimed them to be their favourite band due to their craggy yet literate country-rock aesthetic. Since 2005 Vlautin has been writing novels which are dark and sinister representations of Southern US working class struggle. Tales of unfulfilled potential, emotional and physical suffering, lack of humanity and murder. The High Country is more of an audio book with a soundtrack rather than your archetypal concept album.

 

There aren’t actually that many “songs” on The High Country. Instead the album mainly consists of spoken word pieces accompanied by simplistic acoustic guitar compositions and acted character skits. As a result, without fully emerging yourself into the story, this album could prove to be an underwhelming affair compared to the band’s previous bombastic efforts such as Lost Son. However, surrender yourself to the narrative of Vlautin’s lyricism, and his ability as a storyteller shines through. Bukowski meets the Coen Brothers, The High Country narrates the hardship of an unhappily married girl living in a grim logging community, unloved by her abusive husband. The tale is, like many of Vlautin’s other works, grim; alcoholism, miscarriage and murder all give the album a rather distressing complexion.

 

Thankfully, the story is penetrated by “proper” Richmond Fontaine songs. The band have always specialised in a rough and ready kind of Americana, but The High Country finds the band on more mellow, but just as menacing, form. Vlautin’s descriptive stream of consciousness, the underlying chugging guitars which sound like chainsaws tearing through oak, almost punk-rock baselines and the occasional flourish of lap steels accentuates the spiritual environment of the story. Dan Eccles’ country guitar licks flirt between celestial and sinister, bringing colour to the brown wasteland of the logging community. Of the “actual” songs, ‘Lost In The Trees’ could well be a manifesto of Richmond Fontaine’s approach to music; pounding drums, heavy, crunching guitars caught in repetitive rhythms all whilst rambling Willy Vlautin paints a picture of the bleakness of life. Vlautin exposes those moments of human terror and vice as the mundane and grim reality of life, representing the bleak extraordinary as terribly ordinary in the grand scheme of human existence.

  The High Country should certainly be approached as a story rather than a conventional collection of songs. There are one-off tracks which could be enjoyed alone, but there are more on the record which rely on being understood within the context of the whole narrative to be fully appreciated. This is undoubtedly Richmond Fontaine’s most courageous and creative album to date and for that they must be praised and, where the album may fall short in terms of the number of traditional songs, Vlautin more than makes up for it with his skill as a writer, storyteller and as a creator of a vivid, disturbing landscape.