Sunday, September 01, 2013

The Tornado Inside

Category:  Album Review

Robbie Fulks from the promotional photo shoot
for his excellent new album Gone Away Backward
courtesy of Bloodshot Records

"If you've ever heard Hank Williams sing," Robbie Fulks says in "That's Where I'm From," the highlight of his new acoustic album Gone Away Backward, "then you know the whole blessed thing."  Fulks' new release may not be "the whole blessed thing," but it's certainly close.

Robbie Fulks began his recording career as a member of the bluegrass band The Special Consensus, appearing on their 1989 album A Hole In My Heart.  Bluegrass has permeated his music throughout his career, from the instrumental "Pete Way's Trousers" on his stunning debut Country Love Songs to "South Richmond Girl" on South Mouth (one of the best murder ballads since the Louvins recorded "Knoxville Girl") to "Where There's a Road" on Georgia Hard (well covered by Sam Bush, who played on Fulks' recording, on Circles in Seven).  This isn't an attempt to capitalize on the resurgence of bluegrass or a "gee, that album didn't sell well, guess I'll try bluegrass" move that more than one country act has tried in the past.  Bluegrass has always been there for Fulks.  This time, he's just concentrating on it.

While this is not a 100% bluegrass album (Fulks has referred to it as more of an acoustic album with heavy bluegrass overtone), what it does score a perfect mark on is quality.  The cover photo of a torndao (the album art was shot in April and displayed on Fulks' website in May, lest anyone think he is making light of the Oklahoma tornadoes earlier this year -- something that must be pointed out given that Fulks has endured more than his unfair share of ridicule for his album covers and accompanying liner notes in the past) is appropriate, given the raging souls depicted in a number of the songs.  The protagonist of "Where I Fell," who can only "sling hash for what-all spills off the interstate" in a dead-end town where the biggest attraction is the war memorial, is resigned to his fate, but he says, "the choice was never mine, so I dwell where I fell."  In contrast, the alcoholic of "I'll Trade You Money for Wine" did have a choice, and he is content with leaving his life of high-rolling executive who once perused "your towns from a long black Lincoln" but now occupies the same corner that he has stood on for the past decade obtaining quarters from the banker ("his trouble's deeper than mine") in order to purchase the liquor.  Jenny Scheinman's fiddle breaks reiterate the torment in the soul of the man who scorns those who would pray for him.  

The divorce song "Guess I Got It Wrong" could follow the theme, being the event that would drive a man to drink as he leaves the driveway of his home for the last time with "a few shared things of little worth, and now they're all that's left to hold."  One of the quietest songs on the album, it's also one of the best.  Equally good, but with more harmonies and brighter tempo, is the lost-love song "Rose of the Summer," a song about a man who loses the love of his life when he joins the military and goes overseas for three years but never forgets her.  Even decades later when all of the young people have left town and the old people have passed away, it is the grave of the love he couldn't have that he visits and weeps over.

Not everything drags the listener to the depths of depression, however.  "That's Where I'm From" may break a few hearts with its comparison of modern life of "white collar, necktie" in Chicago to the carefree youth of running "half-naked in the moonshine" in North Carolina with the sad conclusion that the past is gone ("but the road, it goes but one way" Fulks sings in "Long I Ride" elsewhere on the album).  However, you will leave this six-minute visit to country life with a warm feeling, happy that Fulks invited you along for the ride.  

"Long I Ride" and "Sometimes the Grass is Really Greener" take dead aim at the pitfalls of life as a musician (the tag line in the former professes, "it's long to ride for the little I gain"), complete with Fulks' trademark tongue-in-cheek digs ("I don't know just what this deal has got me," he sings in "Sometimes the Grass is Really Greener" while discussing the record company trying to change him into a mainstream act complete with a Brooks and Dunn haircut, "I've gained not a fan, and I lost the ones I had").  While the songs will make you smile beneath the surface is hint of what countless performers sacrifice to entertain us for a couple of hours.

The harmonies on "When You Get to the Bottom," hearken back to Fulks' Special Consensus days not only musically but thematically:  the heroine of "She Hurts for a Living" could well be the person to whom the warning in "When You Get to the Bottom" ("don't reach for my hand") is directed.  This masterful song should be burning up the bluegrass airwaves all autumn long.

Two instrumentals grace the album, "Snake Chapman's Tune" showcasing Scheinman yet again, and "Pacific Slope," where Fulks and Robbie Gjersoe show off their guitar skills.  

The only song that sounds out of place is "The Many Disguises of God," which has a musical feel more along the lines of something from Couples in Trouble.  It may sound disjointed compared to the rest of the album, but it is still a good song.

Robbie Fulks doesn't have to prove anything to anyone, but if you need to know why so many people sing his praises he will prove why he is deserving of the accolades on this brilliant album.

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