Robbie Fulks, Country Love Songs (Bloodshot)
On first listen, it’s tempting to peg Robbie Fulks as another hillbilly postmodernist following in Dwight Yoakam’s footsteps. But “The Buck Stops Here” suggests that Fulks is charting a more personal course. A statement of purpose featuring former Buckaroo Tom Brumley on steel guitar, the song unfolds like a classic tale of heartbreak and violence from country music’s darker side. Having just watched his lover walk out the door, Fulks reaches for a dusty 45not a gun, as you might expect, but a 45 rpm record, a scratchy Buck Owens single from 30 years ago. “The Buck starts here,” sings Fulks, his bell-like tenor a mix of anguish and pleasure, “with Hank sure to follow/Turn him up loud and clear/He’s singing my sorrow/Let the sad songs roll on/To a house full of tears/Where the good times is gone/The Buck starts here.”
Fulks has a flair for the dramatic, but his love of classic honky-tonk music keeps him from condescending to his sources. “We’ll Burn,” a smoldering paean to forbidden love, is hard country at its tortured best. “So we bear our cross in shame/Maybe we’ll go down in flame/But we’ll burn together if we do,” sing Fulks and duet partner Ora Jones, reveling in their fate as if their passion depended on it. Here, Fulks and Jones don’t just recreate the music of a bygone era; with Jones’ black gospel soulfulness rewriting the book on country, rhythm and blues, it’s obvious that, in the spirit of the Mekons, the pair has been “listening to the country boys and dancing on their graves.”
Indeed, anybody who makes a fiddle-and-steel record with punk ideologue Steve Albini must have at least one eye on the future. “Barely Human,” a soul-drenched update of “There Stands the Glass,” benefits enormously from Albini’s touchthe record’s dry, natural sound wipes your head as clean as the singer’s first sip of gin in the morning. “She Took a Lot of Pills (and Died)” and “Let’s Live Together” swing like vintage Hank Williams and Marty Robbins, respectively; in content, however, they’re as contemporary as anything in the catalogues of P.J. Harvey or Prince. Country Love Songs is occasionally too kitschy for its own goodas on “The Scrapple Song,” for instancebut, with chops, wit and attitude to spare, it’s still one of the most forward-looking evocations of the early-’60s Bakersfield sound you’re likely to hear.
Fulks’ Nashville record release party is scheduled for 7 p.m. July 7 at the Sutler, where he’ll be sharing the bill with local favorite Duane Jarvis.
Joe Henry, Trampoline (Mammoth)
I’ve been playing Joe Henry’s Trampoline much like I did Tricky’s Maxinquaye last yearobsessively. Formally, the two records have little in common, yet both work their way under your skin in the same uneasy fashion; both use texture and groove to flesh out their underlying themes of gravity and resistance. But whereas Tricky struggles to avoid getting swallowed up by a world where intimacy no longer seems possible, Henry comes on like a romantic. He sings of falling from a dizzying array of heights, ruing whatever ground is lost, whether he’s falling earthward, falling from grace, or falling out of love.
Trampoline’s tensive arrangementsstrings, funky beats, atmospheric guitarand its corrosive cover of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Let Me Have It All” must have come as quite a shock to fans of Henry’s previous records, all of which fell along the singer-songwriter/alternative-country-rock continuum. Even so, there’s no mistaking Trampoline for an art-damaged hip-hop album. From the languid beauty of “I Was a Playboy” to the noisy grandeur of “Medicine,” the overall effect is something akin to Vic Chesnutt’s Is the Actor Happy? Henry’s abstract miniatures likewise recall Chesnutt, creating plenty of room for listeners to participate in his downward, but often breathtaking, spirals.
Sleater-Kinney, Call the Doctor (Chainsaw)
“White girl/I want to change everything/But I won’t change anything/Unless I change my racist self,” sang Corin Tucker on calculated, Heavens to Betsy’s sole LP. The record’s liner notes went on to encourage riot grrls to confront racism and classism in their own movement, offering a reading list that included the writings of bell hooks, Audre Lorde, and other radical women of color. calculated also promised great things from songwriter-guitarist Tucker, who promptly dissolved Heavens to Betsy to form Sleater-Kinney with Excuse 17 frontwoman Carrie Brownstein and drummer Lora Macfarlane.
Call the Doctor, the Olympia, Wash.-based trio’s first full-length album, picks up where Tucker’s previous band left off, railing against socialization and intolerance, especially the hegemony of values and institutions that silence and commodify people who are different. But more than being just a bitter pill to swallow, punk anthems like “Stay Where You Are” and the title track make Call the Doctor an even stronger collection of Pink Flag-inspired originals than Elastica’s ’95 debut. And in no way is Tucker being naive when she sings “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone”; she knows that becoming a rock ’n’ roll queen may mean throwing off one oppressive yoke for another.
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