Robbie Fulks achieved semi-stardom in the mid-'90s writing what the late Steve Goodman dubbed "shtick-kicking songs." His first two skewed solo albums, Country Love Songs and South Mouth, featured banjo-laden meditations on subjects such as pork products and foul-mouthed harlots. Fulks looked to have carved out a semi-respectable country novelty niche in the vein of Shel Silverstein. But ever since then he's been trying to shake the shuck-'n'-jive reputation. He's put out a couple of sporadically brilliant, almost twang-free albums that alienated his core audience and sold minimally. Fulks was shopping a Michael Jackson tribute album when the Prince of Pop's current kiddy troubles surfaced. Not surprisingly, the album has never seen the light of day.
After this decade of self-sabotaging career choices, Fulks seems to be returning to his roots. Last year he produced a first-rate Johnny Paycheck tribute album, and now he has released a delightful collection of original country tunes. The title track is an updating of "Streets of Baltimore," with Chicago stepping in as the nasty northern city. Hank Singer's fiddle and Lloyd Green's pedal steel set the forlorn backdrop as Fulks belts out the tale of a fellow who follows his sweetheart north only to discover heartache and homesickness. "Leave It to a Loser" is a deftly rendered countrypolitan number featuring saccharine swelling strings and Joe Terry's nimble piano runs. Fulks's singing on these numbers is less histrionic and more assured than in the past. The hint of an ironic sneer that previously seemed to sneak through even his most sincere songwriting efforts is no longer detectable.
That's not to say that Fulks has lost his penchant for shtick kicking. The showstopper on Georgia Hard is a lewd Homer- and Jethro-esque novelty number called "I'm Gonna Take You Home (And Make You Like Me)." Joined by his wife, Donna, Fulks spews out fatuous pickup lines in a slurred, hiccuping delivery. Donna displays her own impeccable comic timing and brassy vocal aplomb in this barroom brawl. And she gets to deliver the final punch line: "You fast talkin', slow thinkin', gin guzzlin' hound dog/You are so drunk you have forgotten that we's married."
Somehow this joke doesn't sour on repeated listens.
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