Hail to the grief – Willy Vlautin and Thom Yorke

Thom Yorke, 2013. Pic: Yasuko Otani

Thom Yorke.
Pic: Yasuko Otani

“Multilayered tinklings and murmurings”.

“A subliminally shimmering aura”.

“A spiral of tension, cryptically portraying a society ignoring its own witch hunts as a clattery, insistent string arrangement ratchets up the dissonance and agitation”.

Three sentences from one review of Radiohead’s new album – a release that, at times, seems less a suite of music and more a herald of the End of Days, a soundtrack to the collapse of 21st century consumer society.

But what if Radiohead’s post-millenial tension is not your thing? Then you might turn to James Blake, another artist who released an album last week. Worth a listen, you ask?

“The melancholic funk of ‘I Hope My Life (1-800 Mix)’ or the dive bomb synth swoops of ‘Radio Silence’ show Blake’s ability to orchestrate moments that mimic the stark romantic bombast of a Caspar David Friedrich painting,” says Pitchfork.

This is when I reach for my Revolver. Or the latest – and final – Richmond Fontaine album.

The Portland, Oregon, band don’t do sweeping existential soundscapes – creeping, trailer park existentialism is more their style; less how did we end up here, than how did end up here (and why’s my wallet empty, and my hand still bleeding)?

Willy Vlautin

Willy Vlautin

Bandleader Willy Vlautin doesn’t have Dylan’s songbook or Springsteen’s bombast. Nor can he offer the song-for-song batting average of John Prine or the gut-wrought polemics of Steve Earle.

But what he does offer is fear – the terror felt by people at the end of the line or crashing headlong toward it – tempered by small moments of release.

I Got Off The Bus, the keynote song on Richmond Fontaine’s last album, contains more dread than Radiohead’s Burn The Witch and more regret than their Daydreaming.

Like Daydreaming, the Richmond Fontaine song has, at its root, a broken relationship; but whereas Thom Yorke goes for the too-clever option of singing the phrase ‘half my life’ backwards, Vlautin plays it straight.

“I called a girl I used to know
A nurse from Saint Mary’s
We had a place on 7th street
But I Ieft her in a rough way
Her dad said she got married
Was living in Stockton with a baby
He said he couldn’t remember me –
But I knew he was lying
The night seemed never ending…”

Needless to say, the song doesn’t end well for Vlautin’s drifter. But his short, desperate story contains more humanity than a ‘tense, cryptic portrayal of a society ignoring its own witchhunts’.

Perhaps that’s because – as Thom Yorke once put it – all of us are “accidents waiting, waiting to happen”.

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