Robbie Fulks has a new album out and it’s called Gone Away Backward.
In the mid-1990s, Chicago-based artist Fulks became known in the alternative country scene as a sharp and wry observer. After ten releases he has certainly covered some interesting ground – spanning shades of twang (Country Love Songs), roots-rock (Couples In Trouble), and even Michael Jackson covers (Happy).
Fulks’s new release on Bloodshot Records returns to the folk and bluegrass sounds that once captured the imagination of a little boy who first picked up a banjo at age seven. Recorded and mixed by Steve Albini at Electrical Audio in Chicago, Gone Away Backward finds Fulks re-evaluating his roots and lamenting the decline of the small-town and rural America in which he was raised.
After twenty years on the road, Fulks began in 2008 performing in unplugged, small-group settings. Regular sessions at the Barbes in Brooklyn and an ongoing residency at Chicago’s Hideout gave him wider freedom to experiment and improvise. Apparently he learned a few hundred new songs and, in the process, developed fresh angles on his own narrative voice. Excited and freshly focused, he began writing music for a new project.
At the centre of Gone Away Backward is Fulks’s oak-matured vocals and prodigious guitar picking. The album is rooted deeply in the interplay between Fulks and a brilliant cast of Appalachian-style slingers: Robbie Gjersoe, Jenny Scheinman, Mike Bub, and Ron Spears, collectively playing banjo, mandolin, fiddle, upright bass, and adding airtight and warm vocal harmonies. Each song’s anecdotal tales are built on sharply-observed acoustic instrumentation and voice.
The album’s opener is a clear signpost of what is to follow. “I’ll Trade You Money For Wine” draws on Fulks’s classic vocals which are crisp and precise – with a beautiful fiddle accompaniment. “Where I Fell” is a softer track sung with passion from a wistful traveler and it features sublime acoustic guitar picking. “Long I Ride” (for the little I gain) is driven by banjo, a bluegrass number narrated by a drifting discontented troubadour as he moves from the heat (‘I went up on Jackson Hill, at a diner I sat down/and I waved at every stranger just to move the air around’) to the rich (‘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…I’d trade every brick on Wall Street for one Black Mountain Rag’) to God (‘They say that there’s a wondrous land for any good man that dies/And if it’s got drink and women, well, then I’ll be surprised’).
The first-person of “That’s Where I’m From,” by contrast, is a father at the end of a struggle taking melancholy note of his children. It’s reflective of an era where time passes slower, where manners were better, where the landscape is deep-Hank-Williams country – the playing here is exquisite. “When You Get To The Bottom” is a more traditional country song – perfect harmonies and moody slide the core. “Snake Chapman’s Tune” is a beautiful instrumental, stately and evocative of a back porch jam, the graceful fade is a standout. Maybe the one track that doesn’t work as well for me is “Imogene”, a playful rag with muted guitar – perhaps a little too much elongated vocals. The pace however is quickly picked up with a rousing instrumental “Pacific Slope” – integrated artistry abounding. “I Guessed I Got It Wrong” is a gentle enunciation of regret and “The Many Disguises Of God” is thought provoking, referencing paternal abandonment and contains some tension in the string work. The closer “Rose Of The Summer” is not dissimilar to the opening track, providing a neat book-end piece.
This is a beautiful album – all-embracing story telling, fantastic playing and a consumate journeyman going about his craft with a refreshing, natural and powerful collection. This marks his return to the Bloodshot label since 2001. I reckon the label would be pretty chuffed with itself.
“There may be flashier songwriters than Robbie Fulks, but there are none better than him. His new album, Gone Away Backward, is a sneaky triumph. Hobos and miscreants rub shoulders with nostalgic old-timers and lonely lovers. The musicianship on the album kicks ass, but the real star is the brilliant pile of songs Robbie has amassed for his return to the great Bloodshot Records.” —Rhett Miller, Old 97’s
Tour dates are here
Here is a live rendition of the opening track: