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Robbie Fulks | Couples In Trouble (Boondoggle / Bloodshot)
On his first album of new original material for four years, Robbie Fulks has achieved a remarkable transformation. Or perhaps that's the wrong word for it. His talent was clearly evident on his first two honky-tonk influenced albums and on 97's power pop missile 'Let's Kill Saturday Night'. Perhaps blossoming is a better word. Whatever. This album rushes by in a flash and spark that leaves most of this year's other contenders stranded at the gate, breathless and stunned. As the title suggests, the twelve songs herein detail domestic anguish of one sort or another but it's with a startling maturity and poignancy, as well as originality, that is so lacking in most contemporary music. (Albini-watchers take note - the man of a thousand credits continues his long association with Fulks, - 'recording' here.) It begins quietly enough with the stark In Bristol Town One Bright Day, a chilling folk lament that sounds like it's being played from deep inside a well. Next up, Anything For Love, starts off slow and fractured, a small vignette of masochistic love that suddenly erupts midway through into a swirling maelstrom of strings and layered vocals. It's the kind of moment that makes you sit up, stop what you're doing, and listen, launching the album into regions that few contemporary artists have the skill to traverse. The savage power pop riffing of Dancing On The Ashes follows, a tale of forced friendship in times of war, ("On a low bank where the smell hangs thick / Harry huddles over a legless wretch / Yes, dear Jack, I'll finish you quick / And we'll leave mother to imagine") of senseless carnage and brutality that's all the more poignant post-Sept 11th. She Needs You Now, perhaps the best song here, is an unsettling, quietly evocative meditation on marriage and death, rising and falling on the pulse of a probing double bass. It's one of those songs where you forget to breathe - it's that good. Often filed away as an alt.country rocker, Fulks displays an amazing array of styles and genres on this record, never sounding forced, always promising new twists and turns. My Tormentor is a lush, Bacharach-esque string and piano piece with Robbie's resigned, smoky vocal residing between the silent spaces of the music. Then there's the swampy soul groove of Real Money which, along with the child abuse saga Brenda's New Stepfather ("Hey little hotpants, I'm your daddy, no matter how hard you scratch") makes clear that Fulks is the natural heir to Randy Newman's acerbic and yet empathetic portrayals of human monsters. Mad At A Girl is the only piece of light relief to be found on this finely textured album, a breezy horn driven piece of immaculate pop. The sweat soaked, shaking-in-your-shoes-soul of I've Got To Tell Myself The Truth is simply fantastic, building gradually into a surprise ending and if you want further proof of this man's genius then just listen to the way that the Celtic fiddle and accordion of the suicide ballad Banks Of The Marianne morphs into a complex Grateful Dead-like percussive coda and then morphs yet again into a series of silence violations worthy of Aphex Twin. Eclectic suddenly seems a very poor word. Unequivocally brilliant and unlike anything else you'll hear this year. The first great album of the twenty first century.
CWAS #9 - Winter 2002