Robbie Fulks is a brilliant songwriter and a very funny man, but that sense of humor sometimes hindered his work as much as it helped. His biting wit tended to undercut the humanity of his more serious songs, a quality that kept some of his earlier albums from reaching as deep as they could and should. Fulks seemed to have overcome this flaw on 2013's Gone Away Backward. The album was a stark, bone-dry set of acoustic songs that recalled the sound of Depression-era country as it spun tales that were compassionate but unflinchingly honest. Gone Away Backward was one of Fulks' very best and most acclaimed albums, and he's clearly learned a great deal from it. 2016's Upland Stories feels like a companion piece of sorts, playing on a somewhat broader field musically but sounding nearly as spare and just as clearly focused. Fulks has gathered a handful of gifted accompanists for Upland Stories (including Wayne Horvitz, Fats Kaplin, and Todd Phillips), and their performances provide the ideal tone for these songs. The players support these songs gracefully without ever intruding on them, and Steve Albini's crystal-clear recording and mix favor them beautifully. The themes and arrangements of Upland Stories are often more modern than those of Gone Away Backward, but the uncluttered approach is similar, and the results are just as satisfying. The literacy of these songs is impressive, but they sound conversational, like stories meant to be read aloud. And Fulks' understated but emphatic vocal delivery helps the small town details of "Fare Thee Well, Carolina Girls" and the bittersweet life lessons of "Needed" hit their emotional targets dead on. ("Aunt Peg's Old Man" and "Katy Kay" also reveal Fulks hasn't lost his sense of humor, he's just applying it with a greater degree of care.) As spare and gently satisfying as a warm spring afternoon, Upland Stories is a reminder that the brilliance of Gone Away Backward was no fluke, and that in his mid-fifties, Robbie Fulks is only getting better, both as a songwriter and as a recording artist. Highly recommended.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming