I've listened to music all my life. But I came of age during an odd time, a circumstance that dictated somewhat my perspective on what's come to be known as "classic rock" (then simply known as "rock"). My first Grateful Dead record, f'rinstance, was Go To Heaven, largely forgotten save for their highest ever charting hit, "Touch of Grey". My first Bowie experience came under the influence of Scary Monsters. I learned of Neil Young from Hawks & Doves, and Emotional Rescue gave me my first taste of the Stones. Similarly, when Little Scott decided to get to know Bob Dylan, I purchased a copy of Street-Legal (certainly nobody's choice for his career high point). Perhaps if I'd been born five years earlier my experience would've been completely different, more typical. There but for fate ...
I mention this by introduction of 16, a new 2-LP labor of love from Robbie Fulks (my first taste of Fulks came with 1998's alt.country highwater mark, Let's Kill Saturday Night). In the ensuing years, the Chicago-bred artist has worked through an encyclopedic range of roots expressions, from the superb americana of Georgia Hard to the Grammy nominated folk of Upland Stories and last year's lark with The Killer's little sister Linda Gail Lewis, Wild! Wild! Wild! As a connoisseur of left-of-center cover songs, I'd be amiss if I didn't mention Fulks' 2010 collection of Michael Jackson songs, or his sprawling 2009 project, 50 vc. Doberman. But for 16, he's turned his restless attention to that curious Dylan period where the bard fell briefly under the influence of the just-passed Elvis and Leonard Cohen, a foray which would result in Street-Legal.
Robbie Fulks actually happens to be a skilled prose writer, as evidenced on his blog where he published a piece prefacing 16. In a curious turn, the new collection is available only on LP - that's right, it's vinyl. Fulks writes about being driven by his vision of a project that does justice to the turntable: ... one of my main motivations in doing this current record ... was to have one release I could point to in my life that had no audiophilic compromises ... There would be some analog component pre-mastering. And the finished thing would be available only as an LP, denying many potential listeners their preferred medium but assuring me that my efforts and expenditures wouldn't end at earbuds and laptops. All of which means that you won't find songs from 16 populating our weekly ROUTES-casts at this time. It's a consummately indulgent endeavor at some level, leading Fulks to advise fans recently against purchasing the relatively pricey double-LP, investing instead in joining him at an upcoming concert event. Readers in search of a delightfully jargon- and opinion-filled explanation of the how's 'n why's of the vinyl process would be advised to spend some time with Fulks' blog (sound quality is harder to maintain as the circumference of the disc tightens ...).
For Dylan, Street-Legal arrived in the wake of a pair of critically acclaimed works, Blood on the Tracks and Desire (and it would lead into his "Christian trilogy"). Rather than reconvening his successful collaboration with Rolling Thunder Revue, he assembled a largely new supporting cast which introduced horns and gospel-influenced backing singers. For his 16 sessions, Robbie Fulks maintains those delightfully dated touches, while crowding the studios with a celebration of Chicago's finest, including members of NRBQ, Flat Five, Superchunk, Waco Brothers and more. While he's come to be primarily regarded as a folk artist, Fulks sounds great as a bandleader fronting a revue of his own.
A short liner note assures us that 16 is not a tribute to Street-Legal, and Fulks' treatment of Dylan's 9 songs assures that there is no undue reverence or slavish recital. Far too much ink has already been spilt poring over these works, and few if any artists have been so adoringly covered. Fulks is seemingly content to simply spend some time experimenting in his musical sandbox. Just about every faithful reproduction is balanced by a more creative departure from Dylan orthodoxy.
"Changing of the Guards", for instance, slows the original significantly, trading Dylan's call-and-response with his backing singers for atmospheric pedal steel and Jenny Scheinman's restrained violin. "Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)" and "Where Are You Tonight" are rendered nearly unrecognizable, both treated through a dark wash of foreboding psychedelics. Fulks' lovely "No Time To Think" becomes a pastoral folk number, supported by little more than unvarnished fingerpicking and a backing chorus. His written comments about his own early relationships with records could just as likely apply to these departures: ... their records were replete with quirks, mistakes, eccentricities, holes you could fill in yourself.
There is an abandon to even the album's quieter cuts, a loose groove that appears most indelibly as Fulks' accompaniment grows and the pace quickens. "True Love Tends To Forget" is soulful, with prominent horns and a strong bridge. "Is Your Love In Vain" is truest to Dylan's original, showing Fulks in his most flattering light as a bandleader. These moments find the singer, with a voice so perfectly suited for roots music, pushing that instrument towards its furthest reaches, emerging at times like Neil Young astride Crazy Horse in his heyday. Nowhere is this more evident than on "New Pony", here engineered by the great Steve Albini. Bluesy electric guitar and organ stomp and buck, establishing a genuinely bad and nasty grind that may catch even longtime fans of Fulks by surprise.
Time will tell if 16 earns a wider release, or if Robbie Fulks' wishes to keep it from your earbuds will be honored. It's not necessarily the most suitable entry point into his oeuvre, but I would hope the project proved enjoyable enough that Fulks might be convinced to reconvene some of the players to pound out an album of his originals (suitable for release, of course, on all formats). For now, we're pleased to luxuriate into these deep and roomy grooves, grateful for the opportunity to stretch our legs as we walk to the turntable to flip the LP every two or three songs.
- Whippoorwill, "Eventide" Nature of Storms (Whippoorwill, Nov 15)
- Ruston Kelly, "All Too Well" Dirt Emo Vol 1 (Rounder, 19)
- Kasey Anderson, "Wiseblood (new edit)" To the Places We Lived (Anderson, Dec 19) D
- Ron Pope, "Practice What I Preach" Bone Structure (Brooklyn Basement, Mar 6) D
- Lucinda Williams, "I Lost It" Car Wheels On a Gravel Road (Island, 06)
- Cave Singers, "Beat Just To Hang On" 5 Song EP (Cave, 19) D
- Simon Joyner, "You're Running Away David" Pocket Moon (Grapefruit, 19)
- Terry Allen, "Death of the Last Stripper" Just Like Moby Dick (Paradise of Bachelors, Jan 24) D
- Nude Party, "Poor Boy Blues" Hot Tub (Nude Party, 16)
- Futurebirds, "Waiting On a Call" Teamwork (VL4L Records, Jan 15)
- Half Gringa, "Wearing White" Too Late To Pray: Defiant Chicago Roots (Bloodshot, 19)
- Austin Lucas, "Ain't We Free (live)" No One Is Immortal (Last Chance, 19)
- Richard Buckner, "Rafters" Dents & Shells (Merge, 04)
- Michael Kiwanuka, "You Ain't the Problem" Kiwanuka (Polydor, 19)
- Districts, "Hey Jo" You Know I'm Not Going Anywhere (Fat Possum, Mar 13) D
- Esme Patterson, "Light In Your Window" single (BMG, 19) D
- Gabriel Birnbaum, "Mistakes" Not Alone (Arrowhawk, Nov 22) D
- Cody Jinks, "Think Like You Think" After the Fire (Late August, 19)
- Ags Connolly, "Lonely Nights in Austin" Wrong Again (Finstock, 19)
- Allison Moorer, "Ties That Bind" Blood (Autoelic, 19)
- Jamestown Revival, "Dead Wrong" single (Jamestown, 19) D
- Silver Jews, "Wild Kindness" American Water (Drag City, 98)
- Blackie & the Rodeo Kings, "World Gone Mad" King Of This Town (Divine Industries, Jan 24)
- Trampled by Turtles, "Fake Plastic Trees" Sigourney Fever (Banjodad, Dec 6) D
- Sarah Lee Langford, "Painted Lady" Two Hearted Rounder (Cornelius Chapel, 19)
- Dexateens, "Broken Objects" Sunsphere (Cornelius Chapel, 13)
- Erin Enderlin, "Hell Comin' Down" Faulkner County (Black Crow, 19)
- Joe Pug, "I Don't Work In a Bank" single (Pug, 19) D
- Crooked Fingers, "Sweet Marie" Red Devil Dawn (Merge, 03)
- Miranda Lambert, "Settling Down" Maverick (Vanner, 19)
Here's where we encourage you to click over to A Routes & Branches Guide To Feeding Your Monster, the blog's puzzlingly accurate record release calendar, updated on a whim. This week, f'rinstance, we added a couple holiday-scented releases from the McCrary Sisters, Amanda Anne Platt & the Honeycutters and a rare compilation for our Jewish friends, Hanukkah+, all due in your cornucopia on November 22. The Dualtone label will be a bit late to the party, offering Dualtone Christmas the following week. Trampled by Turtles have been stretching out into unexpected territory lately, like we like. We're thrilled that their December 6 EP will be christened Sigourney Fever, boasting covers from Warren Zevon, Iris Dement, Radiohead and more. Looking into 2020, we'll herald the new year with the release of Just Like Moby Dick from Terry Allen (Paradise of Bachelors, Jan 24), and As We Go Wandering from the perennially reliable Possessed by Paul James (Jan 31). The close of January also brings us new records from Cave Flowers (feat. a former member of Vanish Valley), but we'll have to wait 'til March 13 for The Districts' I'm Not Going Anywhere (Fat Possum). Hark, your weekly ROUTES-cast awaits: