The Very Best of Robbie Fulks
EVEN HIS SURNAME is best uttered with tongue in cheek--half punk expletive, half proletarian disclaimer. Aptly, the blend of insurgent country and brainy nihilist parodica that Americana-rocker Robbie Fulks delivers is about as off-off-Opry as it gets. A smart-alecky vet at 35, Fulks reveres all the requisite heroes of the No Depression nation, but, eschewing the hum-strum of postpunk alt-contrarians, he lights out for his own peculiar truck stop, one where They Might Be Giants might pick up the tab for Johnny Paycheck. Fulks recalls the noir country of New York's early Nineties Diesel Only collective--citified, small-room crowd-rilers like the Surreal McCoys and the Five Chinese Brothers, bands for whom an aching love of old-school form was always cut with cynical wit.
Live, Fulks is a perma-smile-inducing cataclysm of here-to-please showmanship laced with SAT vocab and dryly absurdist arsenic. His firecrackin' guitar chops shake full-throated hollers from rig rockers, his loyal spoof-target "Roots Rock Weirdoes," and Utne Readers alike. On wax, however, it doesn't always work out. The Very Best (a joke title for a collection of new/unreleased tracks) is Fulks's indie followup to a watered-down major-label disappointment, 1998's Let's Kill Saturday Night (Geffen). Gems include a desirous tribute to 1930s film comedienne Jean Arthur, which recasts a languid "Layla" coda as a perky chorus ("Space rockets and cell clones/Atom bombs and Picturephones/But God sure threw man a curve/When He made Jean Arthur"), as well as the Kelly Willis duet "Parallel Bars," in which a couple of small-town short fuses work through their spats by separately drinking themselves into reconciliation.
But while Fulks's dark comic sense and ambitious scenarios pass for genius live, taped playback reveals a strained vocal range, clichéd lyrical filler, and limited song structure. And you can't have that, not if you want to pull off a Mel Brooksian (read: disturbing) depth charge like "White Man's Bourbon," a randy National Geographic beat-off about how to get native with an African girl: "She was wild as a boar/She was pussy galore/She was tender as a little pup./Yeah, we fucked and we fucked for a full twelve hours/And she was only warmin' up." Nope, you can't have that.