1. Robbie Fulks Upland Stories
There are few musicians as complete as Robbie Fulks – as a writer, a singer, a flat-picking guitar player – and Upland Stories is just further evidence of that. Continuing in the vein of 2013’s fine Gone Away Backward, Fulks tells stories delicate and devastating, wistful and full of wit, in a country and bluegrass style. As a writer, he has few equals and an impressive range. The album is full of lyrical gems. Consider “Never Come Home,” in which a man returns to home to let cancer finish him off, just to find all the problems he left behind are still fresh. “Four hundred miles mean nothing/One man’s troubles are his own/The land is run down and ragged/I should have never come home.”
Lest you think the album is full of gloom, a couple of songs later we get “Aunt Peg’s New Old Man,” a charming tale of love in the autumn year. Then another song that cuts deep, “Needed,” on which Fulks sings, “She longed to keep it/I said no, I had my future to think of/And in her darkest hour she learned/What young men won’t do for love.” Then a few songs down again, “Katy Kay,” a brazen bluegrass ode to infidelity which gives us the chorus, “Hey now, Katy Kay/Heaven never made one cuter/If I didn’t love Katy Kay I’d probably have to shoot her.” What makes that track is that you can hear Fulks stumble and laugh on the final chorus, a notice that there are human beings in a room playing this music.
2. Shonen Knife Adventure
Adventure certainly doesn’t sound like an album by a band by a 35-year-old band. Shonen Knife sound as vital as ever, tearing through tuneful pop rockers like “Jump Into the New World,” “Rock’n’roll T-shirt,” and “ImI.” This is also supposed to be a 70s-influenced album – they cite Thin Lizzy and the Ramones, specifically, and both are apt, and add the Shirelles to account for the airy harmonies. And dig the Beatlesque vocals on “Cotton Candy Clouds.” But Adventure is no retread. This sounds like a rock and roll band still in its prime.
3. Cheap Trick Bang Zoom Crazy… Hello
One week from today, Cheap Trick will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame where they will be reunited with drummer Bun E. Carlos. Carlos and the band have been split for a while, and have moved on with Daxx Nielsen, son of guitarist Rick Nielsen, behind the kit. From what I’ve heard of the new one, it has touches of their classic 70s sound, but the first single, “When I Wake Up Tomorrow,” is something altogether different. It’s more brooding, reminds me of the Smithereens. Take a listen.