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Music Review: Fontaine Brown Tales From The Fence Line

You have to wonder at some people's stamina, sticking with being pop musicians for over forty years. I'm not talking about folk like Mick and Keith either who have been stars for longer then most of you reading this will have been alive, but the guys (and women) who have somehow or other managed to make their livings in popular music since the early sixties. Think about what it must involve to do that if you don't have a record contract with a major label that pays the bills. It means you're dependant on the cash you make from any gigs you can scrounge.

After some success in the early 1960's playing the Detroit rock and roll scene with the likes of Bob Seger, some collaborative work with Del Shannon, and bouncing around he industry producing and performing, Fontaine Brown spent five years living what he called the life of a man with no fixed address, playing crappy little clubs and making just enough to get by. There's only so long though that a man can do that, and so he pulled his van over to the side of the road, set up a home studio, and through his industry contacts settled into a comfortable career as a songwriter for the last twenty years supplying the likes of Emmylou Harris, Persy Sledge, Dave Edmunds, and John Mayall with tunes.

Now two hundred songs later Fontaine has stepped back into the studio for the first time in close to thirty years to record his own music. If you couldn't tell by the diversity of the folk who have recorded his songs over the last few years, Tales From The Fence Line is a collection of tunes that ranges from country flavoured pop to some of the raunchiest and low-downiest blues you'll have heard outside of a swamp. Fontaine has been out right to the extreme edges of pop-music, where it's dirty and nasty and bar owners stiff you for a night's work, what he calls "the Fence Line", but instead of becoming bitter and resentful over lack of success like others might have, it seems to have only made his love for the music he plays stronger.
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Some performers who spend their lives doing a little of this and a little of that end up being only mildly proficient in a variety of styles; basically only good enough to satisfy the not so discerning audiences of drunks they play for in bars. Judging by the evidence presented on Tales From The Fence Line that's not the case with Fontaine Brown. It doesn't seem to matter what style of song he's singing or playing, he's not only as comfortable playing it as someone whose dedicated their whole career to that genre, he writes tunes that reflect its best aspects.

The first thing you notice upon listening to Tales From The Fence Line is how seamless the disc fits together. You'd think that a recording make up of a mixture of genres would sound pretty disjointed, but Brown and his producers, Don Dixon and Daniel Bourgoise, have arranged the twelve songs in such a way as to create the flow that you don't normally find on recordings. The songs don't have anything to do with each other, there's no "theme" tying them together, yet they fit together just like the pieces in a jigsaw puzzle.

The opening track is an ear grabbing, blues/rock song, "Ain't No Brakeman". Complete with raunchy, fuzzed out lead guitar, harmonica solo, catchy chorus, and slow break in the middle of the song, it's a classic rock song that could have been written anytime between 1969 and 1975. From there they go into the mandolin drive title song from the disc, "Fence Line". While anybody could have penned the opening song, this one could only have come from the heart of a man whose spent as long wandering in the wilderness of popular music as Brown has. There are echoes of John Fogarty in his vocals, but the song is uniquely his own, as it sums up a great deal of the desperation he must have felt while sweating up on stage in some nameless bar in front of empty chairs.

Musically the song is also far more interesting than your standard blues/rock song as they do things like have the drums and guitar playing on each other's off beat to create a strange syncopation for the mandolin to run across. There's something about the song that it sent shivers up my spine the first time I listened to it. Somehow or other the music manages to capture the desperation of the lyrics in a way that most songs aren't able to accomplish. This is not a pleasant song to listen to, not because it sounds bad, but because it's never easy to listen to something this truthful and emotionally raw.

Fontaine gives you a bit of break for the next four tracks as he does a sort of tribute to the various styles of music you can tell have influenced him the most. "Detroit Saturday" is the sounds of Detroit rock and roll; "Closer To The Flame" is a soul influenced pop song that shows his affinity for Motown; from it's organ driven opening to it's chorus "Love Come Rescue Me" sounds like it could have been a hit for Marvin Gaye or even Otis Redding; and "Southside Story" is Chicago blues - electric and scorching.

After giving you some steady ground, and making you think he's going to deliver a disc of fairly safe conventional pop songs, he yanks the rug out from under you for the rest of the disc. While each song might contain some element that you can recognize as being blues, or whatever, he pushes the boundaries of the song past what most people would be willing to risk. Take "Pool Of Light" for example, nothing's prepared you for the electric sitar and tabla which gives the song its almost psychedelic flavour.

Most guys who spent their careers playing bars or writing songs for a living end up being fairly conventional, only if from having to spend so many years being concerned with pleasing as many people as possible with their music. Fontaine Brown can play that game as well as anybody and can write a pop song when he wants to. However what makes Tales From The Fence Line a cut above what you're going to hear from most people is his willingness to take chances and experiment. The result is a recording that is continually surprising in its content, and a delight to listen to. Don't feel bad if you've never heard of Fontaine Brown before listening to this disc, but I think you're going to be hearing a lot more of him from now on. After forty some years of working in pop music its about time he got a little recognition and he deserves it for this recording.

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