“Can you hear the drums, Fernando?”
There are three famous Fernandos that come to mind upon hearing the name. One is Fernando Lamas, notoriously spoofed by Billy Crystal for a series of SNL sketches. Another is the titular character of a song by Swedish supergroup Abba, as referenced by the quotation above. The third is Fernando Valenzuela, the former pitching phenom for my beloved Los Angeles Dodgers, and now one of their Spanish broadcast announcers. Music lovers can now add a fourth to that list with Fernando Viciconte, the singer / songwriter from Portland (by way of Los Angeles, by way of Argentina) who goes by first name only. In previous years, he’s fronted the L.A. hard rock band Monkey Paw and has released an all Spanish language album, but now, five years after his last album release, he brings us Enter to Exit, a gorgeous alt-country collection that could end up defining his career.
With opener “Howard Hughes,” Fernando sings as if he’s having a hard time deciding whether he’s more in love with Wilco or the Traveling Wilburys. In fact, the guitars are such that you would think his bandmates (members of the Eels and other Northwest bands) channeled George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty. It’s with the second song that Fernando truly puts his own stamp on the album. “One Trick Pony” is like Bonnie “Prince” Billy covering Portishead in the style of Iron & Wine, slow, methodical, boozy and menacing, but with a hidden soft side. Disproving any relation to the previous title, Fernando again changes things up with the ’60s pop sheen of “The Reluctant Deity,” which resembles what you might imagine Elliott Smith would sound like played at double speed. There are quite a few similarities to fellow Portland and Los Angeles resident Smith throughout the record, making it feel all the more intimate.
After two slow, loping, spare and beautiful numbers in “Another Day in My Head” and “Mariana” (the second album I’ve reviewed this week to have a song with that particular title), Fernando brings the bounce back with “Everybody Knows” which has no relation to the Leonard Cohen song of the same name. Besides “One Trick Pony,” one of the other standouts on the album is “The Devil’s in the Sky,” a lush pedal steel stunner with backup female vocals. Fernando’s slightly gritty voice, along with the uncredited female, makes the song sound like a duet between Eagles-era Don Henley and Stevie Nicks. What makes Enter to Exit such a treat is its balance. The album traverses from lush pop harmony to the lonely sound of twanging steel, from slow, loping beauty to upbeat boogie-woogie piano, and from Fernando’s sandpaper delivery to the kind of silky smooth vocals as found in closer “Waiting.” Five years is a long time between records, but it appears that Fernando has used his time wisely, compiling an album of breathtaking intimate pop / folk / country.
In the song “From Now On,” Fernando claims that he is “just a man who can smile when he lies,” which reminds me of the great P.T. Barnum who once famously put a sign above a tent flap that read “Behold the great egress!” The rubes that didn’t realize that `egress’ meant `exit’ and not some kind of exotic bird or mythical monster ended up outside the circus, having to pay a second entrance fee. I wonder if that’s what Fernando meant with the title Enter to Exit. In any case, once the album ends, you end up more than willing to pay that second entrance fee.