"Anything having to do with horse racing seems all right to me," says Willy Vlautin. The Richmond Fontaine singer is sitting in a rundown Northwest tavern talking about the Portland Meadows horse races, and why he named the latest Richmond Fontaine album Post to Wire.

"Post time is when you can't bet anymore," he explains, "and the wire is the finish of the race." Horse racing is a fitting metaphor for Richmond Fontaine's stories of hard lives lived, occasional victories and brutal losses.

In the world of gambling, Vlautin will tell you, there are big timers and small timers. Big timers go for the glory while small timers stick to two-dollar bets. There might not be much glory for the small timer, but there's usually enough money to keep on playing.

At the track and in the music world, Willy Vlautin is, happily, a small timer. It's not a bad position. Vlautin, along with bandmates Dave Harding on bass, Sean Oldham on drums and Paul Brainard continue to create some of the most honest and impressive Americana in the West.

Much of Richmond Fontaine's latest treads on safe ground, picking up where the memorable life stories and resonant twang of 2002's brilliant Winnemucca left off. The lap steel and tumbling drums of "The Longer You Wait" sets the stage for a somber tale of a runaway and her ride, while the piano-balladry of "Barely Losing" finds Vlautin enjoying and lamenting a three-day weekend. Other moments find the band stretching its sound.

"Montgomery Park" recalls the energy and brash creativity of the Replacements, while the title track and the melancholic "Polaroid" feature golden-throated Damnations singer Deborah Kelly to bar-silencing effect.

The biggest gamble on Post to Wire is a series of three spoken-word "postcards" spliced between the 13 other tracks. The short tales penned by Vlautin showcase the songwriter's character-sketching abilities. By the last postcard Walter seems as real as a member of the Joad clan.

Overall, though, the guys of Richmond Fontaine don't take many chances. There's no endless touring, no fantasies of picking up and moving to Nashville, no plans to change their brooding and brilliant country sound to appeal to a more populist audience.

Why would they, after all, when the formula has worked for the past eight years.

"Maybe our lucky break isn't making money or getting to really do some cool shit," Vlautin says. "Maybe our lucky break is getting to keep putting out records and having fun--and having great people who like our band."

Richmond Fontaine plays 9 pm Friday, Jan. 16, at Dante's, 1 SW 3rd Ave., 226-6630. $6. 21+.