The Upshot: Fulks cuts back the country shtick to a pen a terrific set of richly written, deeply human “Upland Stories.”
BY MICHAEL BERICK
If Upland Stories sounds like a book title, it’s probably no coincidence. Fulks lists authors James Agee, Amy Hempel and Flannery O’Connor alongside songwriters like Dan Penn, Al Anderson and Jesse Winchester as his “stimulants” for this album. In fact, the tunes here hold a rather literature quality. Upland Stories” finds Fulks reflecting on aging, lost youth and life’s often unexpected entanglements in a dozen vividly written character studies that could have easily been turned into short stories instead of songs.
Often on his earlier albums, it would sound like Fulks was making fun of the people in his songs; however, he has found a way to cut the snark while still penning sharply written songs. In the opening track, “Alabama At Night,” offers a lovely way into this album. He exquisitely and quite sincerely expresses beauty of this rural land, even while acknowledging that “a hundred words mean nothing.” This “new sincerity” serves him well in the next tune – a rendition of the old Merle Kilgore number “Baby Rocked Her Dolly.” Set in an old-folks home, the tune fits in thematically with Fulks’ originals, although it could have easily have ventured into hokum.
Throughout this CD, Fulks reveals a great touch at drawing emotions out of these stories without succumbing to easy melodramatics. In “Never Come Home,” Fulks writes about a dying man who has a disquieting return home, while the “South Bend Soldiers On” finds an old man sitting on his front porch swing, missing his own son while feeling like a father to all the young girls he sees.
Two songs, however, particularly exemplify Fulks’ excellent storytelling skills. “Needed” starts off as a teenage love story that turns into an unexpected (and not really wanted) pregnancy; however, the song winds up with the father imparting his love and advice to his now 18-year-old child. The jaunty “Fare Thee Well, Carolina Gals” initially seems like a standard “leaving a small town” tale but Fulks deftly twists the clichés to deepen the story.
Fulks also uses his vocals to give different narrative character to his songs. On tracks like “Dolly” and “Alabama At Night,” he sings in a rather plain-spoken, everyman-like manner, while he deepens his voice to lend an ominous quality to “Never Come Home.” Then on songs like the standout “America’s A Hard Religion,” “Katy Kay” and the delightful “Auny Peg’s New Old Man,” he sings in a slightly exaggerated hillbilly style. The first tune is a stirring bluegrass gospel tune that suggests a serious-minded companion to Steve Martin’s “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs,” while the latter two are more comical tunes that find Fulks laughing with his characters instead of at them.
These lighter moments, along with the upbeat tone of the love song “Sweet As Sweet Comes,” serve to make Upland Stories a more well-round effort than his last album, 2013’s Gone Away Backwards, an impressive outing filled with mainly solemn songs. In fact, Upland Stories might just rank as Fulks’ strongest overall album. He may not be looking to “kill Saturday night” anymore but, with Upland Stories, Fulks has composed songs that are richer and more rewarding.