Robbie Fulks' past records have lacked strong visuals, but the cover of his sixth album tells quite a bit about its content: Georgia Hard looks like it could have come out in 1965. The cover is a simple portrait of Fulks under an expressway, with his name, the record title, and song titles to the left. The look is purposefully old-fashioned, as are the album's 15 tracks. But they're not old-fashioned in the alt-country-friendly, Hank Williams sense; they're more in the decidedly uncool Ronnie Milsap/Eddie Rabbitt tradition. Fulks has always stayed a few steps ahead of the alt-country world, so maybe the '70s are the new '50s.
The sound is perhaps strongest on the third track, "Leave It To A Loser," a mournful ballad with strings (and at one point, talking vocals) that could have come from the Urban Cowboy soundtrack. "I Never Did Like Planes" has an early-'80s feel, but with the cringe-inducing lyrics, "I never did like planes / I'm not one to fly / I guess we'd all have wings / if God loved goodbyes." Most fans would probably expect Fulks to lampoon such schlock, and it's easy to wonder whether he's being ironic, even though by all accounts he's not.
Georgia Hard isn't completely unrecognizable, though. The opening track "Where There's A Road" is a supremely catchy, poppish country song featuring legendary mandolin player Sam Bush. There's more than enough twang to go around on tracks like "It's Always Raining Somewhere," "Each Night I Try," "All You Can Cheat," and "Goodbye, Cruel Girl." Fans of Fulks' comically inclined songs should enjoy "I'm Gonna Take You Home (And Make You Like Me)," a duet with his wife, Donna, and "Countrier Than Thou," a classic Fulks fuck-you to traditionalists and hipsters, which should please fans aching for another "Fuck This Town." The title track has a nice balance: The autobiographical tale of Fulks' early experiences in Chicago isn't saccharine or sarcastic. Fulks plays it straight and shows off his formidable songwriting chops in the process.
Fulks has explored a number of country styles since his 1996 debut, and has thrown more than a few curveballs along the way. Whether he hits the strike zone or not, he's always challenged listeners. For fans who have grown used to his flights of fancy, Georgia Hard will be another uneven effort, but it almost seems designed to separate the real country-music fans from the ones who just own a couple of Bloodshot releases.