Robbie Fulks’s latest, his first since 2001, is the Chicago-based alt-country iconoclast’s most consistent effort yet. The eclecticism and snarky humor that have proven exhausting on some previous efforts come together here for an unfailingly entertaining disc.
Sam Bush’s mandolin and some hot guitar licks color the opening bluegrass-tinged “Where There’s A Road,” a song about leaving home and not looking back. It’s one of several themes Fulks returns to throughout the disc. On the title track, a funny but surprisingly heartfelt tune, Fulks sings about a guy who leaves the south for Chicago only to find himself missing his Georgia home when he lands “a mailroom job that isn’t all glamour and fun.” It’s brilliant, ’70s-style country that tugs at your heart as you chuckle at Fulks’s clever turns of phrase. The piano-and-strings-laden Charlie Rich-like ballad “Leave It To Loser” goes for the same effect, with Fulks telling the sad tale of a guy with everything whose cheating ways do him in.
Fulks’s efforts at straight-up comedy work pretty well here, too. “I’m Gonna Take You Home (And Make You Like Me)” is a very funny duet with wife Donna. Fulks plays a husband who’s so drunk he tries to pick up his wife in a bar. In the mold of Fulks’s earlier “Roots Rock Weirdoes” (a sociological examination of a cross section of the singer’s audience) is “Countrier Than Thou,” a tune about music fans from up North trying to lay their own claim to roots music. Fulks calls them (among other colorful names) “hayseed wannabees.” The last couple of verses, which are worth the price of admission alone, are about a rather famous faux-cowboy carpetbagger.
Fulks has always been a fan of the murder ballad in the country tradition, and there are a couple of humdingers here. On “Coldwater, Tennessee” (co-written with Dallas Wayne) he tells the tale of a father who leaves his singing family for the bright lights of Nashville. And “If They Could Only See Me Now,” he sings about a guy who marries a rich girl who turns out to be a little too wild.
Fulks’s voice has a nasal quality that, if you listen closely, may remind you of Oscar the Grouch from Sesame Street. But there are several performances here where he overcomes those limitations. He sings the hell out of “All You Can Cheat,” a clever tune about a sleazy motel with a classic first line: “If those lights once spelled a word, it wasn’t Hilton.” And “You Don’t Want What I Have” is another dramatic, George Jones-like country ballad.
Despite all these high points, Georgia Hard does feel a little overlong. There are a couple of interchangeable throwaway honky-tonkers and an instrumental featuring guitarist Redd Volkaert that the album wouldn’t miss. But overall this CD is the strongest of Fulks’s career, and it’s the one to recommend to fans and newcomers alike.