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'Wild! Wild! Wild!' Coheres As A Carefully Conceived Lark


This is FRESH AIR. Linda Gail Lewis is the younger sister of rock 'n' roll pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis. And like her brother, she's been performing since the 1950s. Robbie Fulks is a Chicago-based singer-songwriter who's recorded a lot of idiosyncratic country music. Now, they've teamed up to record their first album together on an album called "Wild! Wild! Wild!" Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.


ROBBIE FULKS: (Singing) Back when this land was a jungle, that's when it was my home. I had a lion's blood. All I wanted was to ravage and to roam. Once you crossed paths with this stray cat, we was ripping it up in style. We were fast and free, weren't we? Wild, wild, wild.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Pounding and propulsive, the title track of "Wild! Wild! Wild!" sets the tone for this unusual album. It's a throwback to the earliest era of rock 'n' roll. But it's not pickled in nostalgia. Instead, this is a collection of sweet and sour songs. Both Linda Gail Lewis and Robbie Fulks emphasized what Jerry Lee Lewis did - rock 'n' roll's roots in country music. While that's only half the story - rock's origin in rhythm and blues is equally crucial - Linda and Robbie tell their version of the story very well, on a song such as "That's Why They Call It Temptation."


FULKS: (Singing) It wasn't just the promise of a thrill.

LINDA GAIL LEWIS: (Singing) Nor your tender touch alone that broke my will.

LINDA GAIL LEWIS AND ROBBIE FULKS: (Singing) It was knowing where we were going, we'd never turn back around. And in one reckless night, we'd be forever bound. That's why they call it temptation. There's no power so strong.

FULKS: (Singing) For our hearts could see the right thing.

LEWIS AND FULKS: (Singing) Yet we ran to the wrong. That's why they call it temptation.

TUCKER: Robbie Fulks wrote many of the songs on this album, which he also produced. He gives Linda Gail Lewis a number of solo showcases in a variety of styles. Here she is drawing out the jazz and blues sides of her heritage on a Fulks original called "Memphis Never Falls From Style."


LEWIS: (Singing) Way down the road from Nashville, on the Chickasaw Bluff, where the food is always fine, and the weather ain't rough, it's hard to tell the high and mighty from the rank and the file. And fashions alter often, but Memphis never falls from style. From the old highway...

TUCKER: Lewis as part of her brother's band has been at the center of rock history. Fulks is a self-situating outsider whose one major label release on Geffen Records in 1998 was also his least typical. What both Louis and Fulks share is a decided lack of commercial impact. They know what stardom looks like as a prize that is just out of reach. For a fictional version of this mindset, listen to the way Fulks embodies a washed-up star on "I Just Lived A Country Song."


FULKS: (Singing) Swinging doors and Whiskey River, the first words I learned to say. Willie, Merle, and all those outlaws was all that daddy'd ever play. And these beer joints where I'm working, I started working at 16. Now if I look a little ragged, must be those 30 years between. My first single hit the big-time. For a while there I was hot. I can't recall the early '90s. These last 10 I'd rather not. There were mornings when I'd wonder...

TUCKER: This album isn't the first time Linda Gail Lewis has been offered an opportunity to step out from Jerry Lee's shadow. In 2000, Van Morrison collaborated with her on a duet album called "You Win Again," but it didn't have the full-blooded passion that this album possesses. Even when Lewis is tackling a medium-tempo pop song such as this cover of Don Gibson's "Who Cares," there's a warmth that gives the song a surge of energy.


LEWIS: (Singing) I walk down this old lonely street, and no one seems to want to speak. Oh, who cares? Yes, who cares for me? All the world seems cold. Everything is grey. Nothing seems the same since you went away. Oh, who cares? Yes, who cares for me? Surely happiness...

TUCKER: There's no good reason this team-up should work as well as it does. Fulks and Lewis are about 20 years apart in age and hadn't worked together before. Lewis most often plays rockabilly music pounding a boogie-woogie piano, while Fulks' country music is so atypical of the genre, when he was nominated for a Grammy in 2016, his terrific album "Upland Stories" was slotted into the best folk album category. Despite all this, "Wild! Wild! Wild!" coheres as a carefully conceived lark. It's loose and, yes, wild, but it's also very witty and shrewd.


LEWIS: (Singing) All you young people preaching ain't had the chance to go wrong. Well, it's too late to go straight when you've been around too long. I'm like the sun that keeps burning. I'm like a wheel that spins on. You can't hardly stop rolling when you've been around too long.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed "Wild! Wild! !Wild!," a new album by Linda Gail Lewis and Robbie Fulks. Next month, Fulks and Lewis will join me for an interview. After we take a short break, John Powers will review the novel that won this year's Man Booker International Prize. This is FRESH AIR.


Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.