Whiskey and Wry
The true tale of one cunning linguist
By Chris Webb

Robbie Fulks happily opposes the musical status quo.

An insurgent voice to be reckoned with, Robbie Fulks once stood on hallowed big-record-label ground. But times have changed. And though Fulks has since given over to tender mercies and spiritual notions, he's still hell-bent on keeping himself happy.

Described by Spin magazine as "America's most unjustly unsung singer/songwriter," the freakishly tall Fulks delivers with every deliciously poisoned pen note. His unique mix of sincerity and withering humor with genre hopping and genre-transcending chops enlivens everything he touches with a gutsy fervor that would scare most performers.

When Fulks hit the scene in 1996 with Country Love Songs, it seemed he might set the music world ablaze. Shining like one of alt-country's brightest lights, Fulks played every angle as the wisecracking urban hillbilly hipster on the subsequent release South Mouth as he solidified a reputation as a wickedly irreverent and occasionally scabrous writer. That's when a big label came knocking.

Let's Kill Saturday Night, released on Geffen records in 1998, headed down a slightly more polished avenue. But Fulks arrived just in time to see the label sold and his record forgotten in the ensuing chaos. Soon, artist and label parted ways.

After his stint on Geffen and the release of a pseudo-greatest hits package and a traditional cover album on Bloodshot, Fulks decided to take a walk on the wild side. Riskily, he made himself at home on his own label, Boondoggle Records, free to be the extraordinary idiosyncratic songwriter he wants to be.

That's where Couples in Trouble, Fulks' brand new release on Boondoggle, comes in. Recorded with legendary producer Steve Albini (Nirvana, P.J. Harvey, the Pixies), Couples in Trouble is like nothing Fulks has done before, putting a fresh twist on age-old conventions, trading in the honky-tonk whimsy for an intimate, soul- searching approach.

"When I started writing this record, a little over three years ago," Fulks says, "I was at that place you come to after having codified a reliable technique for the steady production of songs and records: a standstill. I realized I had become a kind of five-chord drudge, a four melodic figure whore, a one-groove monkey."

To try to better himself as a songwriter, Fulks experimented with methods. He toyed with new narrative devices, non-country instruments, mixes of meter and tempo, digital software and other taboo tools, pushing his music to a new and wonderful level.

"I don't like songwriters who keep making the same record over and over and so I try not to be one of those myself," declares Fulks.

And even with the musical modifications, the fans will follow.

"I harbor no illusions about my listeners tagging along blithely and acquiescently with me into new musical neighborhoods," Fulks admits. "For me, what's constant from record to record is, of course, not a specific sound, but my own point of view."

The result is a riveting album that comes as close to a concept record as you can get, twelve songs united by a conceptual divide.

As Fulks points out, each song "presents a pair of people in unavoidable crises, precipitated by agents beyond their control: God's will, historical happenstance and other extrinsic phenomena, their own natures. Against these formidably powerful adversaries, the characters use savagery or love - though, as often as not, an enfeebled or corrupted simulacrum of love - as they see fit."

"These couples come from all over," Fulks remarks. "A husband and wife, on their way across Kansas and Colorado to attend a funeral. Two brothers at the battle of the Somme. Satan, in the guise of a magnetic young drifter, in bed with a slatternly young woman in east Tennessee. A few average lovers, from anywhere, on the outs."

Hauntingly human tales of estrangement are delivered in aching verses and surging choruses. Junkyard rhythms fuel the melancholy and menace of "Real Money," a blunt evocation of moral corruption. "Anything For Love," one of Fulks' finest, captivates with raw emotion and powerful progressions. "My Tormentor," a piano driven ballad about a man haunted by the ghost of a former lover, breathes a gorgeous bleakness.

With songs in his catalog that range from rollicking numbers about tasty delicacies from Pennsylvania ("The Scrapple Song") to tales of trash-talking women ("Dirty-Mouthed Flo") and irreverent glimpses of Nashville ("F**k This Town"), Robbie Fulks has proven himself an artist who has and will continue to take chances as his unpredictability and disinterest in passing mainstream muster is repeatedly showcased.

"I'm out here like an old time troubadour," explains Fulks, "carving out my livelihood day by day, just scraping by. And there's a lot of reward in that. Whatever's happening right now, it's coming from my own doing."

"I guess life is a little too short," he continues. "And the number of records you get to make is a little too finite to let gentility or caution rule you in your writing."

October 13, Saturday, w/ BR549, Lynagh's, 9pm. $12. Call 255-6614 for info.