For The Time Being: Robbie Fulks Reflects on His Rural Heritage With 'Upland Stories'

Photo: Andy Goodwin

For a moment Robbie Fulks worried that he'd gone to the well of southern life one too many times. Then he decided to embrace the kind of music and stories he loves best. The result? A new career high with the album Upland Stories.

Robbie Fulks

Upland Stories

Label: Bloodshot
US Release Date: 2016-04-01
UK Release Date: 2016-04-01

"They're pretty whispery, reflective affairs," Robbie Fulks says of the songs found on his most recent effort, Upland Stories. The quiet subject matter of the tunes is enhanced by a subtle, intimate performance across pieces such as "Alabama at Night", "Sarah Jane", and "Sweet As Sweet Comes". Typical for Fulks there are nods of light and humor that sneak their way in but it is one of his most consistently great and cohesive records to date, no small feat when one considers past output such as Georgia Hard and Couples in Trouble.

He worked on the record with fellow Chicagoan and longtime collaborator Steve Albini who, he says, is remarkably adept at capturing quieter sounds. "We've been doing records together for 30 years now and I think we know each other really well and know what to expect of each other. In addition to the really impressive skill set that he has with audio engineering is that experience," Fulks offers. "He does have this surprising aptitude with quiet music which I realized fairly early on. We did a song on the Country Love Songs record called 'Barely Human' where he got a great steel sound and a nice large but intimate sound out of three instruments and the voice." Fulks also points to his friend's work with Nina Nastasia. "I think her records have that same intimate quality, they can sound large and have the room sound in there but still have that connection. I love his trademark."

He admits that he himself has "never been a gear" guy and reports having trouble remembering the name of his guitar mic. "I have to think really hard so I don't reverse the model number," he says. "But I have gotten better over the years at understanding what to accomplish from tracking. I think that's most of it, you want to be enthused by the sound of your own playback. I'd never aspire to be my own engineer, though. I make it a point not to communicate in quasi-technical language. I say, 'Can we make this rounder? Can we do something that creates a shriller effect on the voice? Can we flatten it out so that these particular frequencies don't poke as much?' I don't try to speak more technically that I'm able to and that usually works for me."

Fulks has come to trust his intuition not only in the studio but with songwriting itself. Though he writes often he says he also has an awareness of when new material will begin shaping an album. "I'll feel it rounding the corner," he says. "In this case I wanted to make it continuous with the last one, Gone Away Backward, because I really like it. I ended up with something that wasn't as similar to that as I'd hoped or planned because there's electric guitar on this and steel guitar whereas Gone Away didn't have that. But I think I came up with something that's fairly continuous. I just sort of took stock of the songs I had that I already liked and then forged forward with the idea that I wanted something quieter."

There were some holes to fill. He wanted lighter fare on the record, so worked up "Katy Kay", then balanced that with the deeper, more personal "Needed". That tune has become something of a new career high for the songwriter, a track that touches on a basic human desire: wanting to be loved but, and knowing that one is loved. Or, perhaps fearing that one isn't. It is a song that is flawless not just in its writing but in its execution. Fulks says it was inspired in part by songs such as Tim McGraw's "Red Rag Top", which shines light on a young woman who has an abortion.

"I love those kitchen sink type songs that are very hard hitting and no other style of music does that as well as country," he says. "So I had that in the back of my head as I was working on that one. But the other thing is that you don't know exactly where the song is going to go at the outset. The first verse happens: it seems to be a guy remembering back to his youth which could be who knows what age. It could be two years back or 50 years back. Then it gradually comes into focus as to who he is and how old he is. It's pretty close to the end of the song when it becomes clear that he's actually addressing another person, not the listener, but his child. And that's when it's meant to drive the dagger in."

In some ways it harkens back to Fulks' time writing music for publishers in Nashville. "They'd just come out the Integrity Scare of the late '80s with guys like Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam and Randy Travis and Foster & Lloyd were inking big corporate deals and getting airplay," he recalls. "And I loved all of those guys. I really enjoyed listening to their songs and soaking it in." He says he was also enamored of Reba McEntire and other pop-edged acts. "I just loved it all and I knew the history of it. I knew old country music and the names of all the writers and publishers. I was way into it and ready to leap out of the starting gate."

But, he adds, "It didn't really work out for me like that. I did get stronger as a writer and made a lot of good connections and was actually able to make a living as a country songwriter for a couple of years. It was a lot better than office temping, you know?"

Much of his career has been spent issuing records for Chicago's Bloodshot imprint, a place he seems to feel happy at if sometimes disconnected from the so-called insurgent country that has populated the label's roster over the decades. From the start he's set himself apart with a lyrical and harmonic sophistication. "There are writers who can do a lot with simple chords," he says, "but that's a rare talent to be interesting with. But even guys like Billy Joe Shaver with a song like 'The Good Ol' U.S.A.', or 'Georgia On a Fast Train', wouldn't work if the music weren't great. To me, the music is primary and the lyrics sometimes get in the way. So the trick is to make them an adequate, unobtrusive overlay on the music."

Those overlays on Upland Stories rely on references to the south, both as a geographical location but also as a mindset. Fulks' identity is equal parts southern and northern: He was born in Pennsylvania but lived between there, North Carolina and Virginia throughout his formative years. But he's spent most of his adult life in the north, including attending college in New York City. "I refer back to the south a lot because when I lived there I was impressionable and those are the most amazing years of your life," he says. "At a certain point I realized that I was writing about the southeast and setting songs down there continually: Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia. I thought, 'Well, I gotta stop this. It's becoming ridiculous. It's becoming a crutch.' Then I thought, 'I'll do one more record that's all that.' That was the genesis of Upland Stories.

Fulks says that his southern youth helped shape him but not in ways he could always articulate. "It got clearer as I got older that I was from a time and place which, when I was there and in the middle of it, I didn't necessarily feel connected to. In fact, for years, like when I went to college and after I tried to push that aside, that part of my personality. I just tried to be in the swim more. Whatever was popular in 1980: The Police and The Pretenders, all that, that's what I tried to identify with and understand and swim with. Twenty years later, I started to say, 'No, what I was doing when I was 10, copying Doc Watson and John Hartford and getting into Ricky Skaggs and Delbert McClinton and some of that was the way to go.' I started to think embracing that might really give my work more value. It's deeper in me because it me when I was five and 10 rather than 20 and 25."

He adds that growing up in that era of punk and new wave and then seeing the music he'd grown up on come out a filter of the so-called insurgent music was a bit strange. "I've never really identified with the noisier, more zealous side of the alternative country crowd. I've always come at it from a gentler place and a more chops-driven place I would say. But I was never ashamed of liking what my parents liked when I was a kid. You know it's funny because my wife and her friend were talking with me in the car not that long ago and they said, 'Who did you see when you were a kid?' My wife said she'd seen Frankie Goes to Hollywood twice and her friend said she'd seen The Smiths. I recognize those names and have an idea what the sound is but when they turned to me and asked the same question, I said, 'I saw the Osborne Brothers three times or four times, the Seldom Scene play several times, the New Grass Revival all that I could.' They looked at me like I was speaking in Esperanto. At times like that I realize how different my experience is from a typical mainstream experience."

With touring behind Upland Stories likely to keep Fulks on the road for a while he hasn't quite started thinking about his next record but he says he has ideas about two he'd love to make but probably never will. "I'd love to take on the Christmas record. And I'd love to take on a comedy record in the style of Firesign Theatre, National Lampoon, or Albert Brooks. Those had integrated music elements and if the situation ever arose I think it might be fun as hell to try my hand at that. In the meantime, I think I've stumbled upon something that's been working and that's what I'm going to stick with for the time being."

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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