Robbie Fulks makes bold move forward by going ‘Backward’
By Mark Guarino Chicago Sun-Times Music Writer September 5, 2013 11:32AM
Robbie Fulks will present his latest CD, “Gone Away Backward,” at an album release party Friday night at City Winery. | PHOTO BY DINO STAMATOPOULOS
album release party, 8 p.m. Sept. 6, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln. $18-$20. (773) 728-6000;
Every Monday night at the Hideout, over the last three years, Robbie Fulks has quietly reinvented himself.
The singer, guitarist, and songwriter stood at the vanguard of the alt-country movement of the past two decades, having released 10 albums that showcased his musical virtuosity and wit. If there is a genre out there, Fulks didn’t just explore it, he came out the other end in full control. Bluegrass, power-pop, noise, honkytonk, introspective singer-songwriter fare, he’s crossed paths with all of them with restless spirit.
A weekly residency seemed, at first, the most appropriate place to channel the full spectrum of those pursuits. When Fulks kicked off the Monday night series at the Hideout in early 2010, and a temporary one at Barbest in Park Slope, Brooklyn, that’s exactly what happened: A tribute to a lost Bob Dylan album one week, the next a series of country gospel duets. But as time rolled on, Fulks focused more on a single sound: A simple, but textured, presentation of his songs that worked inside a generous musical space.
The result is a remarkable new album, “Gone Away Backward” (Bloodshot), his first set of original songs in eight years. The album’s minimal setting creates its own musical vocabulary that focuses the listener toward the power of the lyrics, which portray a bleak American landscape, with trouble, not on the horizon, but at the front door.
“Playing with one or two other people in quiet settings over the last couple of years — I really loved it probably more than anything else,” he says. “When you’re playing you can hear absolutely every move a person makes and can react to it. No one has to hide or conceal themselves.”
That interplay is the product of the musicians Fulks handpicked for the record: Among them, guitarist Robbie Gjersoe and fiddler Jenny Scheinman. Their combined resume, from playing with country music singer Jimmie Dale Gilmore (Gjersoe) to jazz guitar stylist Bill Frisell (Scheinman), reflected an understanding of underscoring the emotional pulse of a song, opposed to following genre expectations. Fulks calls them the “heart and soul” of the album.
“Not to sound too sappy, but I feel love and gratitude when I play with those two people because they helped me so much. They both listen to all kinds of music and they’re not beholden to any particular scene. They have amazingly open minds, and so they’re inclined, when figuring out songs, to have broader references to work with,” he says.
Fulks also returned to Steve Albini, a frequent collaborator, to produce. Albini, best known for working with alt-rock titans like Nirvana and the Pixies, helped in the same way as the musicians:
“He can be a quiet presence, which can be really useful in letting the song define itself and unfold with the musicians. And he’s unemotional, which I like,” Fulks says. Albini heightened the momentum by refusing to allow the musicians to linger too long on a particular song. His arrangement of the microphones also created space in the music that became essential to the album’s sound.
“His sounds are unbelievable. The instruments themselves were mixed in that singular way only Steve does,” Fulks says.
The songs sidestep genre and instead inhabit the world established by Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams made relevant by the recent recession. On “Where I Fell,” Fulks sings from the eyes of a small town local who sees his way of life vanishing. “Somebody in Bombay is running that press I used to hate/now I sling hash for what all spills off the interstate,” he sings, before breaking into a bittersweet whistle.
Later, on “Long I Ride,” a country fiddle tune, he sings in the voice of a drifter crossing modern America: “These New York folks will treat you kind when your wallet’s in your hand/but a six-string on your shoulder could be the Devil’s brand.”
The bleakness comes from years of travel: “When I leave my little bubble in happy Chicagoland, it impresses me that life is so different. You just have to go an hour and a half out of Chicago and you’re in a different world. In some ways, it’s depressing to see these evident signs of struggle,” he says. “These towns can’t possibly go on another 50 or 100 years not making things.”
The music of these songs is just as sparse: vocals and guitar, vocals and banjo and fiddle. There are no drums. Parsing his sound brought a new focus, he says, and self-confidence.
“Probably the adventuring part of my existence is hopefully over, but I think I have a better grasp of what I can contribute that someone else can’t do,” he says. “Which is important.”