Richmond Fontaine's sixth album has been likened to Springsteen's Nebraska, and it is easy to understand why: compared with their previous releases, it's a low-key, mostly acoustic affair of pronounced bleakness, its 11 songs offering a series of lowlife tableaux pock-marked with trauma, loneliness and despair. But although the songwriter Willy Vlautin has a storyteller's gift for sketching situations with a few broad, vivid brushstrokes (his debut novel, The Motel Life, is soon to be published by Faber), he lacks the vocal talent to animate the narratives, his weary mumble just letting them flop there, lifelessly. Written during a fortnight at a Reno casino-hotel, they're dark, bitter accounts of those on the receiving end of fortune's slings and arrows: abused wives' lonely new lives in motels; debtors paying dues in blood; soldiers going Awol to mourn lost brothers; boys running away from home. Flight figures heavily, as people vainly seek greener grass. The subtlety of the arrangements - a tint of piano, violin or harmonica colouring monochromatic acoustic-guitar - leaves the desperation unvarnished and, to my taste, largely unpalatable.
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