2007: the snap-pocket shirts, sideburns, literary leanings and pedal steels of alt-country are simply memories from the '90s. Movement hero and harbinger Jeff Tweedy has led Wilco far from the decade-old roots rock rusticisms of Being There, finding purchase in experimental landscapes dotted with the detritus of modern living. Many have forgotten that Ryan Adams once fronted a marvelous alt-country band called Whiskeytown, as the bedheaded man-child jettisons off into the pop star stratosphere, bouncing from rock to pop to punk to country (again). Not so for Richmond Fontaine, who are led by archetypal old-school-styled alt-country hero Willy Vlautin. The intelligent and slightly shaggy Vlautin, who has published a successful novel (and whose voice contains the perfect blend of fragility and gravel for this type of fare), writes smart songs -- poetic weepers that ride strains of deep twang and pedal steel and lash sweet pop melodicism to country intonations. For their seventh album, Thirteen Cities, the Portland, OR band headed into the deserts of Tucson to work for the third time in a row with J.D. Foster, who is known for producing Calexico and Richard Buckner. Calexico pitch in significantly with horns on the euphoric, sprightly pop-country of the opener, "Moving Back Home #2." Elsewhere, on the busily titled "$87 and a Guilty Conscience That Gets Worse the Longer I Go," sweet cries of pedal steel trail the mini sketches of Vlautin's narrator, who witnesses enough suffering and depravity (a near-death boxing match, a tractor-trailer crash, a teenage runaway in a sexual tryst) to spur him into the kind of deeply beautiful and downtrodden existential crisis that was once Tweedy's stock-in-trade (e.g. "Far, Far Away" from Being There). By the time one gets to "Capsized," whose down-by-luck narrator drifts, sells his possessions, and estranges himself from all palpable life, you begin to get the sense that the deeper Vlautin plunges his characters into despair, the brighter the twinkle of exultation in his eye. But all would be for naught if he didn't breathe rare life into these literary tales with melodies that often take breathtaking little turns and swoops. With Thirteen Cities, Richmond Fontaine employ varnished beauty to exceed the already high-water marks set by 2004's Post to Wire and 2005's The Fitzgerald.
AllMusic Review by Erik Hage