Over the course of 10 albums with the Portland country-noir band Richmond Fontaine, Willy Vlautin has grown into an evocative storyteller, a talent he’s developed further in a series of novels detailing the desperate adventures of down-and-out characters. On Colfax, the debut of his new band the Delines, Vlautin mines a similar vein, but with a soulful weight that exceeds all his previous work, thanks to singer Amy Boone. Formerly of Austin band Damnations TX, Boone breathes life into Vlautin’s lyrics with a warm, rich alto that conveys deep desolation and vulnerability.
On “Colfax Avenue,” she’s a woman sneaking out to walk the streets at night while her husband and kids are asleep, but it’s not what you first think; she’s looking for her brother, who hasn’t been right since he returned from the war. On “I Won’t Slip Up,” she’s an addict who’s weary of those who don’t trust her as she pleads for a friend to give her a ride into town, where trouble clearly awaits. On “State Line,” she’s the would-be rebel who never pushed it far enough, her story neatly prefaced in the opening line: “My whole life can be seen in one scene.”
Colfax is brilliantly bookended, opening with mournful interplay between Vlautin’s guitar and Tucker Jackson’s pedal steel on “Calling In,” then proceeding like a long night’s journey into day until “the sun is coming up” over the sad side of town on the closing “82nd Street.” Carefully placed right in the middle is the lone cover, a rendition of Randy Newman’s “Sandman’s Coming” in which Boone’s lullaby-like vocal drifts atop Decemberists keyboardist Jenny Conlee’s dreamlike piano accompaniment. The song is like an antidote to the rest of the record, a soft reprieve from the hard reality of everything that surrounds it on Colfax.