Richmond Fontaine’s Willy Vlautin is back with a new band, a female singer and a rich collection of songs…There’s a Colfax Avenue in Denver, in a notorious heyday the haunt of prostitutes, barflies and junkies. Jack Kerouac wrote about it in On The Road. Now the delinquent strip appears to have given its name to the title of this often-sublime suite of Americana heartbreak, written mostly by Willy Vlautin, as well-known these days as a prize-winning novelist as a songwriter, who’s no stranger to places like Colfax Avenue.
It looks like Willy Vlautin is finally gaining some wider recognition. It’s just a shame that he’s becoming better known as a writer rather than a musician. That’s not to say Vlautin’s books are without merit. Quite the opposite: fuelled by the same compassion for hard-pressed lives heading towards – or already residing in – the ditch that infuses his songwriting, the first three of Vlautin’s four novels are required reading for fans of gritty American realism; debut The Motel Life has just been turned into a film.
The Delines make it all sound so convincingly easy on their affecting and memorable debut album. This is down to the confidence and vulnerability of Amy Boone’s singing, the depth and strength of Willy Vlautin’s writing, and the understated playing of the rest of the group. Vlautin writes engaging characters into evocative settings, Boone totally captures those characters and makes us care, while the band allow them space to breathe: a sister worried sick about her post-combat veteran brother, a wife gazing at the offshore lights where her husband works as she prepares to leave their lifeless marriage, a teen girl on “I Won’t Slip Up” trying to have fun and regain the trust of others, and an older woman falling into an abusive relationship with a ne’er-do-well drifter.
Denver’s Colfax Avenue is one of America’s great urban streets, as important to understanding the Modern West as the Monument Valley of John Ford’s westerns is to the Old West. Running east to west through the metropolitan area, from the end of the Great Plains to the beginning of the Rocky Mountains, it has been home to all the different kinds of service-oriented businesses that people looking for a new start want. Including booze and prostitution.
The last few records from Richmond Fontaine (the Oregon-based country-rock outfit fronted by novelist and songwriter Willy Vlautin) were increasingly glum affairs. Rewarding, yes, and full of treasures, but downhearted to be sure. When they disbanded after 2011's The High Country, Vlautin and drummer Sean Oldham looked to reinvent themselves. Working with a new cadre of musicians including Jenny Conlee-Drizos from fellow Oregonian band the Decemberists, and handing the vocals to Austin-based Amy Boone, what was once Richmond Fontaine is now, emphatically, the Delines.
In between penning novels and running the much-beloved Richmond Fontaine, songwriter Willy Vlautin started another project: the Delines, which revolves around his writing and the matter-of-fact intonation of former Damnations singer Amy Boone. The result of the collaboration is a gorgeous set of songs set in late-night bars after work, as denizens tell their stories with the appropriate tenor of resignation and hope. Mixing country and soul with neither muss nor fuss, the sedate sextet highlights lovers separated by distance physical (“Flight 31,” “Wichita Ain’t So Far Away”) and emotional (“He Told Her the City Was Killing Him,” “The Oil Rigs at Night,” which boasts the devastating line “To live without love is easier than lying day and night”).