Richmond Fontaine

Safety

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    8
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It's hard to listen to Richmond Fontaine's debut album, Safety, and not find yourself thinking you're hearing "Uncle Tupelo Junior," a comparison that doesn't always flatter the band. Guitarist and lead vocalist Willy Vlautin certainly can't be faulted for the fact that his voice naturally sounds a bit like Jay Farrar's, but the group's scruffy and brittle alt-country attack suggests this band spent a lot of time listening to No Depression and had embraced the sound without managing to sound as tight or as powerful. (The album's low-budget production doesn't do much to mask the fledging group's flaws, either.) But even a casual listen reveals that as a songwriter, Willy Vlautin has a lyrical voice that's powerful, distinctive, and all his own -- Vlautin has published a number of short stories, and his songs chronicle the lonely and desperate lives of his characters with a literate but plain-spoken feel for detail that's at once economical and evocative. Not a lot of songwriters in any pop genre could create characters like the thieves-turned-murderers of "No Safety," the speed addicted loser of "White Line Fever," or the suicidal child of "Kid Steps Out Into The Road." Listing to Willy Valutin sing, you might think he's trying to be Jay Farrar, but once you hear what he's singing, you realize he isn't following anyone but himself, and for all its flaws, Vlautin's songs make Safety a genuinely compelling debut.

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