Robbie Fulks

Couples in Trouble

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Robbie Fulks is certainly one of the best songwriters to emerge from the fertile Chicago alt-country scene, but it didn't take long for Fulks to make clear that his creative ambitions went far beyond the clever and cynical retro-twang of his debut album Country Love Songs. Fulks' first (and only) album for Geffen, Let's Kill Saturday Night, found him moving away from explicitly country-accented material in favor of high-bombast roots rock that unfortunately sounded like a deliberate effort to dumb down his material in hopes of scoring a hit. Let's Kill Saturday Night was released shortly before Geffen was swallowed up in a corporate merger, and the album died before it ever had a real chance in the marketplace. Left to his own devices (and recording for his own label), Couples in Trouble was Robbie Fulks' first album of new material since that last failed attempt, and while fans hoping for more stuff like "Tears Only Run One Way" or "She Took a Lot of Pills and Died" will be disappointed to learn this album offers practically nothing in the way of a straight (or twisted) country song, it's a far stronger, more ambitious, and more satisfying exploration of the rock and pop sides of Fulks' musical mind than anything he's released to date. Couples in Trouble also offers little in the way of laughs, presenting a fascinating but unrelentingly grim series of vignettes about human relationships gone wrong in a variety of ugly ways; "Real Money" and "Anything for Love" pack the edgy menace of a Jim Thompson novel set to music, "Brenda's New Stepfather" is a truly creepy tale of a teenage girl at the mercy of her mom's lecherous new husband (made all the more troubling by the jazzy swagger of the music), "My Tormentor" is a quietly desperate story of a marriage falling to pieces, and the closest thing to a cheerful up-tempo number, "Mad at a Girl," is an old-school R&B throwback about a guy who, at least for the moment, has decided no one is going to let him forget he hates his significant other. Fulks produced this set himself, and the results are far more adventurous and sonically diverse than Let's Kill Saturday Night at a fraction of the budget; this is the most impressive bit of record-making Fulks has managed to date, and suggests he could have a solid career as a producer if he wants (he's also at the top of his game as a vocalist, never overplaying his hand on material that could easily seem melodramatic). If there's a criticism to be made of Couples in Trouble, it's that the album is a bit cold around the heart, but that's also probably the point; it's been said that the heart goes where it will, and on this album the human heart follows a dozen blind alleys into dangerous places. It ain't always pretty, but it's compelling listening and truly fine music.

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