The story of the girl from the auto-parts store is going to end in tragedy. Vivian Johnson

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Strange things happen in the woods. That sense of isolation tends to draw some fairly bizarre characters into its fold. It can seriously mess with your mind, not to mention the minds of those around you. Shit gets weird. Richmond Fontaine's Willy Vlautin knows that firsthand, but he's managed to turn the surreal and sometimes ominous landscape into a genuinely engaging song-novel called The High Country.

"I live 30 miles out of Portland in the woods, near a bunch of logging land," he explains. "You can't see anyone from my place, but you can hear them—a lot of people shooting guns and four-wheeling at night. It can feel like madness," he laughs.

Madness pervades The High Country—whether it's meth addiction, obsession, affairs, murder, or hopelessness. You know the story of the girl from the auto-parts store is going to end in tragedy from the beginning narrative, but you can't help but hope it won't.

"My head always gets very dark when I get off the road, so I began writing the most romantic songs I could to fight it, but then I'd write one to answer it, and it would be a very violent, dark song," Vlautin says. "So it became a record of romance and violence, a true gothic love story."

Human damage is a theme that Vlautin has revisited repeatedly, whether through Richmond Fontaine albums or his critically lauded novels. (His first, The Motel Life, is currently being adapted into a major motion picture starring Kris Kristofferson and Dakota Fanning.) His skill in making the down-and-out genuinely human—and his band's skill in bringing his storytelling to vivid life—render The High Country a gripping, visual-free, Coen brothers–style affair. It's exhilarating, and in between some intelligently kitschy voice-over bits and hushed twangst, the band steps back and pays tribute to some of its Northwest garage-rock forebearers.

"It's the most ambitious and wildest Richmond Fontaine record, that's for sure," Vlautin says with an obvious grin. "But in the end, it was one of the most fun records we've ever done. Once we committed, it was a blast." recommended