That's All, Fulks!

Robbie Fulks tries to leave his trademark alt-country style behind. But he'll still sing about pig nipples.

Robbie Fulks sings like a psychopath. Listening to the country chameleon, you get a strong sensation that at any moment he might leap from the speakers and hack off one of your limbs with a chainsaw. Take "I Just Want to Meet the Man" from The Very Best of Robbie Fulks (Bloodshot). At first listen, it's the melancholy tale of a cuckolded loser who has returned to his ex-lover's home to bury the hatchet. About midway through the proceedings, though, it becomes evident that the protagonist is not your standard-order jealous boyfriend, but rather a gun-toting wing nut who would like to bury the hatchet in the heart of his woman's new squeeze. When Fulks bellows, "Bring him out here! I want to meet the man!" at the close of the song, it's abundantly clear that he's got more than thumb wrestling in mind.

In the musical cosmos of Robbie Fulks--as the slogan on the T-shirt he sells attests--country music isn't pretty. Three years ago Fulks was the newly anointed clown-prince iconoclast of country music. His debut album, Country Love Songs, a raucous collection of depraved toe tappers, instantly made him a critics' darling. Fulks's followup, South Mouth, offered the subtly titled "Fuck This Town," ostensibly about his time spent toiling futilely on Nashville's Music Row. It became the war chant of neo-hillbilly hipsters the country over: "Fuck this town/Fuck this town/Fuck it end-to-end/Fuck it up and down." The nuances of Fulks's lyrical insights were not lost on the country-music aficionados at Geffen. The label quickly snatched him up.

Ever since then, Fulks has been unsuccessfully trying to shirk the tag of alt-country icon. His Geffen debut, Let's Kill Saturday Night, ratcheted up the guitars and straightened out the twang. For much of the proceedings, Fulks's Marty Robbins-like vocals were buried beneath sonic bombast. Then after being demoted back to the commercial boondocks of Bloodshot, Fulks released "Roots Rock Weirdoes" on The Very Best of Robbie Fulks. The song pillories the very retro-hepcats that will undoubtedly show up in droves to see him perform at Lee's Liquor Lounge Saturday night: As Fulks sings, "Roots rock weirdoes, Christ! They're everywhere!"

This year, Fulks has released two little-noticed albums on his own Boondoggle label. 13 Hillbilly Giants is a collection of long-forgotten country tunes by various backwater masters, such as Jimmy Martin and Jean Shepard. But the album has landed with all the splash of a Ronnie Milsap reissue. Roughly 1,500 copies have been sold since Fulks began offering it through his Web site (www.robbiefulks.com) in January. The album will get a formal commercial release in November on Bloodshot.

Fulks shopped his other title, Couples in Trouble, his first collection of new tunes since 1998, to Bloodshot as well, but the twangcore outpost took a pass. The album was released by Fulks and hit record shops earlier this month. It's not difficult to see why Bloodshot would shun Couples in Trouble. The album is about as country as a Belvedere martini. With a cast of 23 different musicians, including a string ensemble, horns, and conga drums, Fulks runs roughshod through a hodgepodge of styles and tempos.

The album is lyrically dense and unremittingly bleak, focusing on tales of love gone rotten. Many of the narratives end in a death of one sort or another: Man kills wife, man kills baby, man kills self, etc. "In Bristol Town One Bright Day" is a dour folk ballad set only to a mournful guitar, telling of a woman whose baby is abducted by a stranger she beds. "Anything for Love" finds Fulks maniacally screaming over a cacophony of strings and percussion; "Mad at a Girl" is an infectious pop tune, with a supple piano melody giving way to a giddy rush of horns.

The most outlandish track, "Real Money," is also the finest. Against a backdrop of organ chords and a cheesy basso chorus, Fulks supplies a subdued, almost whispered vocal track. The narrative is delivered from the off-kilter perspective of a young boy as the world around him fractures into incomprehensible violence. In the past, Fulks has always seemed to be sneering derisively through his voice, even on seemingly straightforward treatments of songs such as John Denver's "Leaving on a Jet Plane." But here the vocals are sincere, hushed...and creepy.

With Fulks, the elements for brilliance have always been there--vocal aplomb, finger-lickin'-good guitar work, and a crackerjack wit--but the results have been maddeningly uneven. On Let's Kill Saturday Night, to take one example, you get the ripsnortingly evil tale "You Shouldn't Have." "Now there's scratches on your back, smoke on your breath/Your baby blues could use a bloodletting," Fulks wails. "You partied all night picking up everything but the tab." But this is followed by the clichéd and sophomoric "God Isn't Real," which contains all the insight of a Jesse Ventura theology lecture. At one moment Fulks is the virtuoso offspring of Charlie Rich and David Allan Coe; the next he's the inbred son of Hee Haw and Jeff Foxworthy.

Fulks is just beginning to tour behind Couples in Trouble and is uncertain of how the musically multifarious material will go over in concert. He does not have the luxury of dragging a string quartet and horn section with him across the country, but keyboardist Joe Terry has been added to the mix in order to make the band a little more musically agile.

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