Sunday, 6 November 2011

Richmond Fontaine – Bullingdon Arms, Oxford 16/09/11

Empty Room Promotions have served up quite a treat tonight, bringing Portland, Oregon’s Richmond Fontaine to the back room of the Bully. They are here principally to promote their tenth studio album, The High Country, an album that on first listen seemed disappointing, but on repeated plays turns out to sneak up on you and be their best ever. This is quite an achievement for a band on their tenth album, more so when you realise it is more than a concept piece, rather a short story cut up and set to music. The album is set amongst the logging community in small town Oregon, and tells the tale of a secret love between the counter girl of an auto parts store and a mechanic. The weirdos of the community terrorise the young couple and their innocent ways. That this type of album should work so well will be no surprise to anyone familiar with their back catalogue, or indeed singer Willy Vlautin’s three novels.

Willy announces at the beginning that they are going to play the album in full, followed by a brief selection of their back catalogue. It helps that there is an audience of Uncut readers present to allow them to do such things. Deborah Kelley of The Damnations is here to reprise her vocals from the album, and to provide extra instrumentation. She seizes the initiative immediately, with her affecting spoken word opening piece, Inventory. The band run with this, on the haunting instrumental The Girl On The Logging Road and then launch into the gently ferocious The Chainsaw Sea. Angus King Tries To Leave The House swirls and kicks like a toy boat in high winds, disorientating wildly. They even pull off Driving Back To The Chainsaw Sea, the sound of a radio between retuned between awful country stations.

After a short break for beer, the band returns for a run through past favourites. In some aspects this merely accentuates the giant leap the band have made with The High Country, but it also shows they can be a great rollicking alt country bar band too, like a slightly defter Hold Steady. When they play Lonnie from the album We Used To Think The Highway Sounded Like A River, you remember what great things they have done previous to that great current album.

Secret Rivals – Make Do And Mend

As someone who has followed the Secret Rivals path with increasing interest, from the scratchy early recordings and collapsible gigs through to the point where they unleash their debut mini album, I was intrigued to see how they had further progressed. And it is a cracking record. I don’t think anyone saw this coming in the early days, not even myself who had picked up on how much better the band were getting with each release. The vocals are much more effective, Claudia’s lead vocals are much more assured, while Jay’s back up and incitingly harsh yelps are much better controlled than the awkward shrieks of old.

The music used to have the roughness of The Wedding Present, but now slots effortlessly among the new indie wave of The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart and their ilk, while still harking back to the likes of Bis.

If Secret Rivals can keep up the momentum they are currently creating, there is no reason they can’t be the next big thing out of Oxford. Not necessarily chartbound, but a rather nice position of indie credibility.

Make Do And Mend is out now on Kittiwake Records
Secret Rivals website is here