June 25, 2005

Robbie Fulks "Georgia Hard"

During Robbie Fulks' first decade as a country raconteur, he released several wonderful records, including the wonderful one-two introductory punch of Country Love Songs and South Mouth. Both albums contain some of the funniest--and best--country music you'll ever hear, with song subjects ranging from the suicide of a Hollywood starlet, the joy of living in the sin of living together to giving the middle finger to Nashville and the joys of scrapple. For the last few years, though, Mr. Fulks has been quiet; Georgia Hard is his first new record in four years. His last album of all-original material, Couples In Trouble went virtually ignored, and it seemed as if Mr. Fulks had chosen to gracefully hang his hat.

Of course, it's not hard to understand why Fulks' appeal might have slipped; with each record, he toned down the funnier elements that made his inital records great. His reasoning was (and is) valid: he didn't want to be considered as just a "funny" musician. There are those who seem to think that this plan has certainly hurt Fulks' career and it makes his records a little less special; these folks seem to suggest that his more traditional country weepers and contemporary ballads aren't as special as his more lighthearted fare. The naysayers would have a point, but these folks would be well to remember his debut album and the song "Tears Only Run One Way." It's not only that album's high points, but it's about as contemporary country as you can get, and it's not as if Fulks hasn't done his share of flirting with Nashville's lucrative temptations--after all, he didn't write "Fuck This Town" for no reason.

On first listen, Georgia Hard sounds as if Fulks has given in to the temptations and trappings of modern country. Though Fulks is insisting that he's created a record that's built upon the tradition of Roger Miller, Bobby Bare and Shel Silverstein--all men who could write a sad song that could make you laugh or a funny song that will make you weep--Georgia Hard feels more akin to Dwight Yokum and Randy Travis--whom Fulks occasionally sounds like. Such descriptions shouldn't distract, though, from the fact that Fulks is a good songwriter who can write a great narrative, and he's got the ability to turn a phrase ("Into each life must fall a little sunshine" on "It's Always Raining Somewhere" being a favorite) that will bring a smile. To be fair, his arrangements are very Seventies-inspired; his backing band should be commended for the lush, velvet melodies that clothe his songs of heartbreak and wrong-doin'. If you grew up in the mid Seventies and early Eighties, you'll remember when country radio had beautiful arrangements like "Doin' Right (For All The Wrong Reasons)" and "Leave It To A Loser."

But it's his songwriting that's always attracted an audience, and Georgia Hard contains some of his best songwriting to date. Sure, there's no "I Told Her Lies" or "She Took A Lot of Pills and Died," but that's okay, because those albums didn't have a "Leave It To A Loser" or "Each Night I Try" or "I Never Did Like Planes." In terms of songwriting, he's in fine form, even if his style has changed. Georgia Hard's most compelling song--and perhaps one of Fulks' greatest moments--is "If They Could Only See Me Now," which is a song of a man finding success and love, but loses it unexpectedly in an odd, tragic twist worthy of M. Night Shyamalan. It's is a breathtaking tale, and its twist will both shock you and impress you, for it's a stunning song.

In an even odder twist, Georgia Hard's lowest moments are "I'm Gonna Take You Home (And Make You Like Me)" and "Countrier Than Thou," the only songs where Fulks attempts to recreate the funnier moments of his past. These songs show, in a very winsome way, that Fulks might have made the right decision to distance himself from the humorous stylings of his past. It's not that he's given up on being funny, either; he's just decided to place the song ahead of the jokes, and "I Don't Like Planes" and "Georgia Hard" utilize a twisted, self-effacing sense of humor that makes both songs feel more human and universal. Listen to these songs when you're heartbroken, and you'll understand exactly what he's talking about.

Georgia Hard is a problematic, flawed record, and even though it's problematic and flawed, it's still an enjoyable listen. If you expect Georgia Hard to sound like the Fulks you fell in love with, you should expect to be disappointed. Instead, listen to it once, let it sink in, and then listen to it again. When you do, you'll realize that Georgia Hard is an excellent record created by a master songwriter.

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.robbiefulks.com
Label Website: http://www.yeproc.com

1 comment:

Kevin Russell Cook said...

Here's a different point of view.

I've tried to get into Fulks in the past, and I'm sure there is some good stuff buried back there somewhere. But, his love/hate relation with country music was evident not only in the lyrics but also in the musical structures and sounds.

He may still feel (with good reason) the same about the music business in Nashville. HOWEVER, he now seems to have made his peace with all that is worthwile in country music. And, that is a huge piece of territory in country music.

By making that peace Fulks has come out as a master.

There is definitely a retro feeling to most of the material here. Fulks does not try to jack up the sound (ala great producer and guitar master Pete Anderson).
Moreover, he treats this new material as a country 'hall of fame-er' might, when using today's prodution values and approaches to prime material written and showcased decades ago.

I have no plans to go into which songs are best and why, only to say the review's choices are distinctly different for mine while still showing significant overlap.

But, finding great cuts on this CD is like shooting a school of fish in a wash tub.

If the reader is confused by my take, This Is Simply a Great CD! You can have the old Fulks, I'll take this one and any thing else that meets this high standard. Great songs, great performances!

Astoundingly, Robbie here compares well with the very best the great country song writers of the 60's and 70's.