Let’s Kill Saturday Night
By Peter Margasak
When I interviewed Robbie Fulks last year, the Chicago-based singer-songwriter claimed that though his music was based on honky-tonk, he couldn’t “sound the full diapason” as long as he was with Bloodshot Records. And so, after two acclaimed albums on the local “insurgent country” indie–Country Love Songs in 1996 and South Mouth in ’97–Fulks was off to Geffen, where he felt he could broaden his sound as well as his audience.
Fulks has been working hard ever since to disassociate himself from the myopic No Depression scene–but the man who wrote a song called “Fuck This Town” about his experience as a Nashville songwriting hack isn’t trying to ingratiate himself back in Music City either. He’s toured with articulate acts like Junior Brown and Kim Richey–too distinctive for mainstream country but too typical to be y’alternative–as well as quirky popsters Ben Folds Five. A summer residency at Schubas found him changing the format every week, from bluegrass one Sunday to hard-rockin’ pop the next. But the biggest chunk of evidence for Fulks’s effortless range is his Geffen debut, Let’s Kill Saturday Night, which arrived in stores Tuesday.
It’s de rigueur these days for pop musicians to try to incorporate all their influences into their work; some, like Beck or Stereolab, have done it more successfully than others. And over the decades plenty of rockers have dabbled in other genres, from the Rolling Stones getting twangy on “Dead Flowers” to the Beatles getting soul on “Got to Get You Into My Life.” But no one in recent memory spans the gaps between rock, country, and pop with as much ease as Fulks. He’s not so much a synthesizer as a jack-of-all-trades: just as his Bloodshot albums covered country subgenres from Bakersfield honky-tonk to murder ballads to rockabilly to country rock, his Geffen debut runs from country rock to pure pop to soulful hard rock; a hidden bonus track features some deft bluegrass picking to boot. In lesser hands the same record might have come off as a compilation, but Fulks makes it cohere on the sheer strength of his writing, singing, and playing.
Country actually makes a good point of entry for what Fulks does, because it’s really the only popular genre left that still places a premium on the song–whether it’s being performed by the author or not. Fulks can connect with a listener on a multitude of levels, telling stories, offering moral judgments, cracking jokes, and letting off steam, sometimes all in the same tune. Even within established forms like the mountain death song or the honky-tonk weeper, Fulks never serves the convention before the story, and his stories revolve around universal situations and emotions: heartbreak, lust, boredom, discontent. Like John Mellencamp circa Scarecrow, Fulks brings to those themes a fresh perspective and a real way with words. But unlike Mellencamp, Fulks never blows sunshine up your ass to sell records; the title track on Let’s Kill Saturday Night, about eradicating the reality of the working week for a few desperate hours, is about as optimistic as he gets. And “God Isn’t Real,” a bitter answer to the 1959 Louvin Brothers classic “Satan Is Real,” won’t reopen any doors for him in Jesus-happy Nashville.
Other highlights include “You Shouldn’t Have,” a stomper full of arrows like “You partied all night, pickin’ up everything but the tab / But I’m givin’ you the bill for a thousand tears spilled that I’m gonna be a long time forgettin'”; “Pretty Little Poison,” a sultry, grinding waltz with a drippingly sexy cameo by Lucinda Williams; and “Bethelridge,” in which a man ruefully admits that his child is the unwanted product of a lackluster affair. But the dark heart of the album is “Night Accident,” a lengthy, chilling narrative told by one of two lifelong chums pinned in a wrecked car on the train tracks. Assuming death is inevitable, he confesses that he slept with his friend’s wife; when he spots a potential rescuer he pleads with the friend to blow the horn, but the friend is so angry he forfeits both their lives. “A blanket of calm lies draped o’er this earth to shroud all misery and toil,” goes the final verse, “but below us, still red with the blood of its birth, a blaze of pure fury uncoils / As vengeful as hands on a crippled man’s throat / Silently tightening their hold / As sure as the path of the 5:19 / As down through the valley it rolls.”
Despite his less-than-rosy view of human nature, Fulks has a certain empathy for all his characters, and that comes across onstage. I’ve watched his charms work on all sorts of crowds–reverent folkies, boisterous jocks, alt-country scenesters, rockers, and children–and yet he never really pulls punches for anyone, with the exception of leaving “Fuck This Town” out of the kiddie sets. Even with lines like “There the ape-coiffured ex-viscount” and “Burning the torch at her own auto-da-fe,” he’s a true populist, in a way neither Garth Brooks with his howdy-ma’am pandering nor Whiskeytown with their dull reverence for Uncle Tupelo will ever be.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited photo and album cover.