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Robbie Fulks Sings His Way Home In 'Upland Stories'


This is FRESH AIR. Our rock critic, Ken Tucker, has the review of a new album by Robbie Fulks. He's probably best-known for his lively, sometimes raucous country, folk and pop songs. But his new album, "Upland Stories," is more quiet and contemplative. Working with his longtime collaborator, producer Steve Albini, Fulks has created rock critic Ken Tucker considers a frequently beautiful collection of songs.


ROBBIE FULKS: (Singing) A red-tailed hawk sat watchful at the faded edge of day. The phone polls and the pines rose the scoured clay. The sun was slipping toward the gulf in its own good time. And you would not think of death if you drove on past the signs. The old men at the roadhouse weren't...

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Robbie Fulks is so often praised for his musicianship and his witty lyrics that he doesn't get the credit he deserves as a vocalist. One element of the excellence of his new album, "Upland Stories," is the strength and variety of his singing. You heard the high lonesome edge of his voice in the song that began this review, "Alabama At Night." Now listen to the impeccable nasal control he maintains on the bluegrassy (ph) "Aunt Peg's New Old Man."


FULKS: (Singing) We came up. I hailed to meet him. In the dirt patch, he was weeding. That was our first look at Aunt Peg's new old man. Uncle Hank was 75. He lived well and then he died. And none of us had nothing against her new old man. She liked his fiddle and, no doubt, thanked his help on the rural route, and the rest didn't dare thinking about Aunt Peg's new old man.

TUCKER: Fulks has lived in Chicago for a long time, but he's also spent time in North Carolina, part of what has been called the Upland South and from which he derives the album title "Upland Stories." Fulks tells a lot of stories on this album, assuming different identities. In one of the most detailed and moving of these, Fulks is a dying man who returns home to seek some rest and comfort. He finds only bad resentments and a miscalculated sense of whether your family will always welcome you back. It's called "Never Come Home."


FULKS: (Singing) Maybe time has brought some changes. Maybe I remember wrong. It stands to reason I've grown softer. I was married for so long. I took a chill day last April. I lost 30 pounds by mid-July. Not that the old place was the answer, just one last thing that I could try. I had scarcely laid my bag down when my misjudgment hit me square. I was welcomed like a guilty prisoner, old grievances fouled the air. Four hundred miles mean nothing if one man's troubles are his own. The land is run down and ragged. I should've never come home.

TUCKER: I could listen to Fulks' conversational singing on that song forever I think, relishing phrases such as I was welcomed like a guilty prisoner, old grievances fouled the air. What he's getting at over the course of this album is at once simple - a bumper sticker, life is hard and then you die - and something infinitely complex - life is always unpredictable and each of us is forever taking the measure of our loved ones and of our country.


FULKS: (Singing) Some rule from the sky. Some inch across the ground. Their bent backs turned to all heaven above sends down. Scratch and pull from this Earth what gold it may give, fattening on feasts to come, remembering (ph) now to live. And America's a hard religion, not just anyone may enter. America is a hard religion, some never do surrender.

TUCKER: The music throughout "Upland Stories" is a marvelous mongrel mixture Bluegrass banjo picking, honky-tonk pedal steel, stark folk phrasings on guitar and fiddle. The tone of the lyrics tends toward the severe, relieved every so often by a bit of sly romancing, such as this song, "Sweet As Sweet Comes."


FULKS: (Singing) Baby, I'm coming as fast as the law will let me. If it wasn't for the money, I'd never leave you alone. Being close by you just lifts the whole world from me. Your arms are my home sweet home. Trying not to wonder...

TUCKER: Doing some research for this review, I got sidetracked on YouTube watching some performances Fulks and his friends gave in Chicago. Known for his surprising cover versions, Fulks was especially satisfying ripping through Shania Twain's country pop hit "I'm Going To Get You Good." It was a reminder of how much Fulks thinks about all kinds of music and how good he is at squeezing out the humanism, however large or small, that resides of every song that interests him. It's a humanism he creates in varied abundance throughout "Upland Stories."

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Yahoo! TV. He reviewed "Upland Stories," a new album by Robbie Fulks.


FULKS: (Singing) Forget from Tennessee, things seldom move as majestically as planned. But I was born with a decent hand and I played the cards well. Now, over the Hudson, westward we were shocked. The city turns out to be smaller than a fantasy. It's these lost little towns that make the heart swell. To come up Southern is a troubled way. Pay no mind to what the writers say. It's the telling that makes it lyrical. A kid swears to God there's going to be a change, but do people in places ever really change? In the ancient time they called that a miracle. The ground (unintelligible) and clay in the jersey fields gave way to the soft-wooded trees, the pines, Poplars and the Hickories. Old friends are my childhood. They're in the care of the brothers of the holy cross. To our hero of 10 years old, a terrible thought takes hold that the land that is free is steeped in wild blood.

GROSS: Coming up, John Powers reviews a new Brazilian dramatic film about people who work for the Brazil's equivalent of the rodeo. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.