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How You Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm . . .

Fulks, Welch Two-Step Outside the Alt-Country Box

By Lee Gardner | Posted 8/29/2001

Perhaps one day, when the current generation of No Depression readers is a little closer to its dotage, some modestly ambitious entrepreneurial group will start up an alt-country version of Branson, Mo. They could fix up a few neat old buildings in some town somewhere and invite almost-forgotten ex-insurgent singers and pickers to leave their workaday lives behind to rehash their could-have-been hits for vacationing droves of the former cheap-clothes-and-good-beer clique, now slathering sunscreen on their tattoos and ordering more decaf as they toe-tap once again.

A few years ago, Robbie Fulks might have been a good bet as a headliner. The man can write a country song in the classic style--a tuneful, tidy three-verses-catchy-chorus-and-a-bridge-for-good-measure structure filled in with straight-talking lyrics that never forget to be clever, no matter how heavy the heartache might be. Of course, he was alt-country through and through, sardonic and low on the Mickey Mouse. He'd tried his hand in Nashville, but Music Row team players just don't write fallen-angel tragedies and name them "She Took a Lot of Pills (and Died)."

A smart songwriter's generally no fool, and Fulks, who attended Columbia University, seems smarter than most. As he said in a recent interview posted exclusively on his Web site, www.RobbieFulks.com, "[A] little over three years ago, I was at that place you come to after having codified a reliable technique for the steady production of songs and records: a standstill." After two fine albums full of alt-country classics for hallowed Chicago indie label Bloodshot, Fulks started trying to dig out of the Brand New Opry rut he'd paced himself into; the darker, moodier, and rock-flavored Let's Kill Saturday Night (1998) proved a disappointment for many casual fans as well as major label Geffen, for which it was Fulks' first and last effort. The new Couples in Trouble (released on his own Boondoggle label) collects Fulks' subsequent attempts to break out of the alt-country ghetto in his career and in his own head.

"In Bristol Town One Bright Day" opens Couples with a loam-clumped chunk of roots music, a dead-ringer folk-ballad pastiche where boy meets girl, boy beds girl, and it all goes horribly wrong. But thereafter, the album spreads out like a river delta as Fulks tries on anguished singer/songwriter pop ("Anything for Love," "I've Got to Tell Myself the Truth"), a jazzy torch tune ("My Tormentor"), and barrelhouse oompah ("Brenda's New Stepfather"). There's even an untitled two-minute-plus segment of electronic abstraction hidden among the later tracks.

Fulks' songwriting fans out too as he follows the theme provided by the album's title down various paths. "Dancing on the Ashes" finds him first offering up the horrors of a soldier's slog through World War I, then zooming forward three generations to the soldier's video-game-warrior great-grandson "lost . . . in a cathode mist." On "Brenda's New Stepfather," he channels a stepdaughter's worst nightmare--a midnight-creeping horndog who warns, "I've seen your kind sagging like a crone, fucked empty at 25." "Banks of the Marianne" puts an epic spin on John Cheever's story "The Swimmer," as a man plunges into a river to win back his lost love. Snappy, polished, three-minute-four-chord country tunes these ain't.

Perhaps the best song on Couples in Trouble is its simplest, "She Needs You Now.² A delicate big-sky ballad that billows with Fulks' reedy tenor, it shadows a couple driving to a funeral--her distraught, him compassionate but also secretly thrilled to be her rock. In fact, it's good enough to bring to mind several similar songs Freedy Johnston has written. It is not the only case of Fulks' attempts to sound different here making him sound like someone else. The cantankerous reel of "Dancing on the Ashes² recalls Steve Earle; "Brenda's New Stepfather² sounds a lot like a few guys Tom Waits knows. On the tunes where Fulks stretches furthest, he sounds like he's straining; he's most convincing and assured closest to his old turf, on the breezy country-pop numbers "Mad at a Girl² and "Never Could.² Couples in Trouble makes it plain that Fulks is a songwriter of enormous talent, but the album ends up much easier to admire than it is to enjoy. Whether he breaks out of alt-country or not, that may be where he ultimately sounds best.

Like Fulks, California-born, Berklee School of Music-educated Gillian Welch is best-known for her convincingly authentic revisiting of a decades-old style. The finest of her ersatz mountain airs are so grave and graceful they sound as if some stubborn folklorist just plucked them from the very last sunless Appalachian holler left unplumbed. Yes, she and her music are, as actual hillfolks might say, et up with the alt-country nostalgia, right down to her from-the-Dorothea-Lange-collection wardrobe and her penchant for sepia-tone cover art. T-Bone Burnett's inexplicably mannered production on her first two recordings (1996's Revival and 1998's Hell Among the Yearlings) didn't help either, making Welch's tunes sound as stiff and dried-out as relics displayed under a dusty bell jar. Until recently, she sounded like a ready-made featured attraction at alt.Branson.

Well, the snapshot that adorns the cover of her new CD, Time (The Revelator), is in living color, and Burnett has gone the way of black-and-white as well. Welch's co-writer, harmony singer, guitarist, and husband, David Rawlings, produced, booking the twosome into an old-school Nashville studio where they sat down in front of a few mics and sang their songs live, not unlike the Carter Family did in its time. In a way, it's a step back, but it helps make Time Welch's great leap forward.

The intimate setting makes Welch's voice come alive as it never has on record before. She sounds sprightly as she embraces good old country dirt on "Red Clay Halo." She even sounds slyly sultry on "My First Lover." Gillian Welch gets laid! And not by some wayfaring stranger from the ur-culture, but by some longhaired dude who plays Steve Miller Band records while doing the deed. Nonetheless, the real fireworks come from the way the duo's voices bloom together in the pared-down mix, Welch's lead and Rawlings' unobtrusive yet ever-present harmony ghosting and wheeling around each other like courting swallows on every single track, turning even a slight genre exercise like sleepy-time love song "Dear Someone" into a lilting treasure.

The songwriting on Time (The Revelator) represents every bit as much of an experiment as the writing on Couples in Trouble, with more promising results. Where Fulks ditched one set of genre rules only to settle for others, Welch throws her pressed-flower revivalist pose right out the window. The somber, stately "April the 14th Part I" shuffles together snapshots of events that took place on the title day, from the sinking of the Titanic to Lincoln stopping Booth's bullet to an anonymous woman passed out in the back of a car in a bar parking lot. Three tracks later, she recasts the same litany (minus the mystery woman) as a country blues for "Rumination Day Part 2." Why? Who knows, but it's downright hypnotic. She pushes that hypnosis to its limits on the closing "I Dream a Highway," a lulling poetic love song that seems to last as long as a 50-year marriage (in fact, nearly 15 minutes), but you hang on her every exquisitely harmonized word.

Welch even attempts the nearly impossible--writing a good song about Elvis ("Elvis Presley Blues")--and pretty much swings it, singing about the world turning on the King's swiveling hips with a becoming sisterly affection. Unfortunately, she feels the need to bring folk hero John Henry into it at the last minute, and it's not the only odd tangent or anachronistic misstep on Time. The gorgeous, fatalistic ballad "Everything Is Free" turns out to be about, of all things, Napster: "I could get a tip jar/ gas up the car/ try to make a little change/ down at the bar," she sings, as somberly as if she's recounting a mine disaster. Frankly, the song makes her sound like the po-faced Luddite her image hints at. But Time's biggest revelation may be that there's a genuine living, breathing 21st-century artist behind that dusty facade, with a bigger-than-retro career in store. But let's just take this one day at a time.

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