Couples in Trouble
First Appeared at The Music Box, January 2002, Volume 9, #1
Written by T.J. Simon
If the name of the music game is to sell millions of records and fill massive stadiums and amphitheaters with fans, well, Robbie Fulks consistently has been his own worst enemy. For those who might not be aware, Fulks is a Chicago-based, honky-tonk singer-songwriter who mixes the sound and sensibility of roots-rocking country with pop music hooks, often with delightful results. If music existed in a just world, Fulks surely would be a household name, credited as the savior of the country genre. Instead, his commitment to following his own course of action — musically and lyrically — has likely rubbed some record executives the wrong way. One can only imagine how a song such as Let's Live Together, (from Country Love Songs) — on which Baptists are derided as "Jesus morons" — might sit with the folks squarely in the buckle of country music's Bible belt. Likewise, his ode to the Nashville scene Fuck This Town (from South Mouth) probably didn't win him any of the all-too-important music industry friends.
Indeed, Fulks is his own man with his singular vision of what music should be. On his newest self-released album Couples in Trouble, he has made an album free of the creative restraints that he faced with both the Geffen and Bloodshot labels. He has publicly stated that he essentially has become bored with his own songwriting style and wanted to stretch into some new musical territory without betraying his small, but loyal, cadre of fans.
Couples in Trouble is a concept album of sorts with each song telling the story of a relationship in turmoil, and in striking some new creative mechanisms, Fulks did not choose an easy way of exploring standard boy-girl problems. Instead, he tells the tales of a father and son living in poverty in Real Money and a girl with her mother's evil husband in the creepy, Brenda's New Step-Father. These are not deeply personal songs, but rather are literary ones, musical novellas in which Fulks assumes the role of the protagonist — a mature songwriting technique perfected by like-minded artists such as Randy Newman.
In addition, Fulks succeeds in spreading his wings by trying some innovative musical arrangements such as In Bristol Town One Bright Day, a pure Appalachian folk song and an odd track to begin such a non-folky album. Other tunes — such as the melancholic My Tormentor as well as Banks of the Maryanne — feature string, horn, and percussion arrangements that are miles away from his own familiar compositional style.
Unfortunately, much of Couples in Trouble winds up being an excruciating bore. Where are the hooks? Where is the humor? Real Money sounds like a weak Mark Knopfler number, and The Grip of Our Love could replace Sominex as a treatment for those sleepless nights. Fulks is apparently unable to balance the desire to make a bookish, experimental album with the wry humor that made his other efforts such a pleasure.
That said, Couples in Trouble is not entirely without its memorable moments. Mad at a Girl is a catchy song — as good as anything Fulks has ever recorded, and Dancing on the Ashes is a terrific country-rock number featuring a driving rhythm and screeching fiddle. The album also manages to end on a bright note with the country-tinged Never Could, which harkens back to Fulks' better days.
But the question remains: Should you spend your hard-earned money on Couples in Trouble? Tough question. If you've heard some good things about Robbie Fulks, and want to help him earn a living, you'd be much wiser picking up a copy of South Mouth or Let's Kill a Saturday Night. If, however, you are a diehard fan or someone who might be intrigued by studying the evolution of a truly brilliant artist, then Couples in Trouble might make for a worthwhile purchase. In either case, it will be more interesting to see where Fulks goes from here. Hopefully, he will be able to find the correct balance between his new creative endeavors and the fun-filled, infectious days of his past
Couples in Trouble is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2001 The Music Box