Robbie Fulks: Upland Stories

Robbie Fulks
Upland Stories
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Videos by American Songwriter

Don’t be deceived.

That mellow, burnished voice and these sweet acoustic folk/country/bluegrass melodies may sound innocent enough, but they almost obscure Robbie Fulks’ dark, sometimes humorous, often edgy attitude. Once you grasp the wry absurdity of titling an album of previously unreleased tracks The Very Best Of Robbie Fulks, you’ll appreciate the singer-songwriter’s skewed approach.

He has plenty of experience honing that style. Bursting out of Chicago in 1994 by way of Bloodshot’s infamous “insurgent country” compilations, Fulks had a brief relationship with Geffen, released music on his own Boondoggle imprint, did time with Yep Roc and returned to Bloodshot in 2013. Along the way he honed his songwriting chops and now strips his instrumentation to spare acoustics.

Upland Stories features longtime associate, producer Steve Albini. Backing musicians Jenny Scheinman and guitarist Robbie Gjersoe make subtle yet substantial contributions to the back hills vibe of the droll “Aunt Peg’s New Old Man” and the Paul Simon-fashioned “A Miracle.” The jazzy and lovely “Sweet As Sweet Comes” highlights Fulks’ James Taylor inflected voice for the disc’s most sentimental moment. But it’s on the dark “Never Come Home,” where the protagonist finds going back wasn’t a great idea, that Fulks juggles the quirky with the melancholy.

He plays it straight on three songs inspired by writer James Agee’s 1936 trip to Alabama, including the charming “Alabama At Night.” Merle Kilgore’s country oldie “Baby Rocked Her Dolly,” the only cover, is given a respectful reading and the closing “Fare Thee Well, Carolina Gals” tells a first-person narrative about coming of age in the titular state with a mischievous wink and a forlorn grin.

It closes an album that shows Robbie Fulks at 53 might be a kinder, gentler version of the rascal of old, but one who has perfected balancing touching, reflective ruminations and a sardonic outlook with effortless aplomb.

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