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Denver diaspora

Former DeVotchKa and 16 Horsepower member Paul Fonfara gets a chance to branch out with Painted Saints



It's been four years since Denver expatriate Paul Fonfara released his last Painted Saints album, during which time his circumstances have changed dramatically. So perhaps it's not surprising that Painted Saints' third album, No Match for Greater Minds, which comes out Nov. 19, differs dramatically from its predecessors. Those Balkan, gypsy, chamber-folk undertones — which connected Fonfara with his past outfits DeVotchKa, 16 Horsepower and Wovenhand — are mostly missing.

The change is largely tied to Fonfara's 2007 move to Minneapolis, a city that brought new opportunities and allowed him to make music for a living. Well, not entirely — Fonfara does a lot of music instruction, largely on the clarinet — but between the tutelage and gigs with his other bands Spaghetti Western String Co., Brass Messengers, and Dreamland Faces, the new father has been able to afford a house for his family, and the experiences have pulled him in new directions.

"About 10 years ago, you know I was pretty ticked off, but everybody is at that age. I have a kid now, and I can't write about the same things," he says. "I think much of the Painted Saints' gypsy stuff — I found other outlets for that and became more of a songwriter."

Fonfara compares the change to a similar transition made by Beirut's Zach Condon on his recently released third album.

"Their first record just kind of came out of nowhere, and I don't think Zach ever intended it to be a thing," he says. "That's one thing that kind of sucks about doing sounds that are really niche-y. People expect you do it again. Like with DeVotchKa, when people go to a show they know exactly what they're going to get. They have a pretty wide palette and they do a pretty good job of it — better than a lot of people — but you kind of know what you're going to get."

Dream baby dream

Even before Fonfara and his college buddy, violinist Tom Hagerman, started playing in DeVotchKa, they played guitar and bass (respectively) in a number of atmospheric indie rock acts. Between gigs, the two musicians would fool around with clarinet/violin duets, delving into the klezmer and Eastern European music that eventually led them to DeVotchKa. In excising those influences from Painted Saints' music, Fonfara's gone back to an even earlier musical touchstone.

"It was this process of going back more toward the original stuff, when we were first doing this, when we played in these bands in college, and it was total shoegazer kind of space rock stuff," he says.

You can hear faint echoes of Painted Saints' earlier style in the bluesy stroll of "Whimsy" or on "Water Street," its shimmery melody supported by a loping rhythm and an arid spaghetti-western vibe. But for the most part No Match for Greater Minds explores feathery melodies that drift like cumulus clouds and burbling beats insistent as a telephone solicitor. It's a dreamy effort with a watercolor imprimatur and a warm orchestral mien.

While the album features the same bassist and drummer as 2007's The Bricks Might Breathe Again, Painted Saints remains a loose cooperative with a rotating cast of musicians. Fonfara does all the writing and the songs are pretty well sketched-out in advance. "We were going to do a double album," he says. "We had 10 more songs, we just never got them all done. So we're hoping to go to the studio fairly soon and try to get another record done."

Cost of living

Though Fonfara loves the fact that Minneapolis has given him a chance to put music at the center of his life, he misses Colorado, particularly the milder weather and the rock scene.

"As a musician you can make a living here, but I think there's a cost to that: I don't think a lot of the popular music is as creative as it is in Denver," he says. "Slim Cessna, DeVotchKa and 16 Horsepower is, in a conventional sense, pretty odd stuff. And something like that would never happen in Minneapolis, because people here talk about making it, and care about what Pitchfork says. Denver has less of that stuff and tends to be odd whereas Minneapolis is a little more conventional."

Although he moved to Minneapolis with "a music degree and no job prospects," Fonfara is managing to make some headway by putting his head down and continuing to do what he does, albeit from a slightly different perspective.

"I've been teaching like mad to have a kind of legitimate job, enough to pay for a house, and try to do the real responsible adult kind of thing," says Fonfara, who's hoping to get the self-released No Match for Greater Minds picked up by a more established label. "I'm going to send it to labels and get that going on, but it's really hard to tour. I have a kid, I can't really afford to. I can't couch surf like I used to."

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