On a first visit ‘Colfax’, the debut album from The Delines, seems like one person’s life put to music, so infused with depth is the vocal of Amy Boone and the writing of Willy Vlautin. What it is, though, despite the pervading emotional line that runs through its tracks, is a storybook of richly drawn character studies from the Richmond Fontaine frontman, brought to life by Boone and “a band of Portland ringers” as Vlautin labels them.
He assembled the band around The Damnations singer after a drunken request from Boone to write an album for her. Vlautin replied with this, a soul-oriented, nocturnal record, designed to ease the transition through that veiled liminal zone that exists post-alcohol and pre-sleep.
In his career as a novelist and as Richmond Fontaine’s helmsman, Vlautin has long specialised in a kind of dark-edged, blue-collar Americana. These songs, written for a voice other than his own, are among his finest; each one so fully realised, steeped in Vlautin’s empathetic style.
Tucker Jackson’s pedal steel immediately floats over the top of the band on Calling In, a tale of hopeless romance, of fuck ups; Boone goes from that initial flush of “Stay in bed and watch the day fade” to the realist’s voice of hard-won experience, “Darkness ain’t such a hard road/If we don’t go down it alone”.
The Oil Rigs At Night begins with a barely perceptible intake of breath, steeling up for a confessional, of both being cut and being the one holding the knife. It’s a dark hue that surrounds the relationships of ‘Colfax’, making the urgency of Wichita Ain’t So Far Away all the more startling. Musically it’s the record’s most upbeat cut, but that spectre of loneliness looms in the background, “Your fingerprints on me have begun to fade/I swear/Nothing makes sense without you”
The album’s geography is as rich as its inhabitants, a patchwork of streets and cities revealed. On ‘Colfax’ Vlautin unfurls a map of neon signs, dive bars and deserts, fractured state lines, the dislocated relationships that span them and broken ones unable to transcend them, an album whose spatial reach extends from the American West to the Middle East.
Hope and regret live hand in hand in the record’s grooves. The same mistakes are repeated time and time again on He Told Her The City Was Killing Him, where the only things that change are the locations, the old wounds healed to be replaced by new, and the years that pass. Boone begins with “My whole life can be seen in one scene” on State Line and spans a lifetime in a song, lamenting the inability to escape from circumstance. Sandman’s Coming seems a judicious choice of cover then, with Randy Newman’s observation that “It’s a great big dirty world/If they say it ain’t they’re lying” sitting well amongst Vlautin’s vignettes.
Friday night fever only hints at so much more on I Won’t Slip Up; Boone’s voice exudes a weariness of inevitability, of the same ill-judged paths chosen time and again (“I get so tired of people always worrying about me”). It’s a testament to Vlautin’s craft that entire biographies only hinted at by some auxiliary character sketches are conjured in the mind, here not just of the pleading protagonist, but of the person her empty promises fall upon.
Similarly, when Boone sings “Don’t you mess around with me” on I Got My Shadows it’s both defiant warning and weary plea in the same breath. It’s on these numbers that Vlautin and Boone’s partnership hits its most sublime, soulful marks, and not least on Colfax Avenue. The song details a sister looking for her younger brother, an Iraq war vet, in the late night haunts along Colfax Avenue. It’s almost unbearably poignant (“He’s just a kid who’s seen too much/He’s just a kid”), yet graced with the swooning, grand lift of the band.
And The Delines are a fully formed band, not just a vehicle for Boone’s voice and Vlautin’s vision. The Decemberists’ Jenny Conlee enriches on keys and Freddy Trujillo similarly on bass. Vlautin’s Richmond Fontaine colleague Sean Oldham provides that gentle soul punch on drums, while Tucker Jackson’s pedal steel is the majestic, emotive mainstay that sings in solidarity with Boone – the Portland ringers Vlautin speaks of. With ‘Colfax’ the bar has been raised all round, a stunning collection of tragic realism and late-night country soul.