The Best of Robbie Fulks (Bloodshot)
Playing Feb. 17 at 12th & Porter
Among the acts who get termed ”alternative country,“ few are more talented, and more disappointing, than Chicago’s Robbie Fulks. Certainly no act in the genre has so wasted his talent. Fulks can write a great country love song, and he can sing and pick dandy too, but he’s far more likely to spit out catchy ditties that are by turns fatuous, mean-spirited, ironic for irony’s sake, emotionally distanced, self-congratulating, and forgettable. His new disc, the sardonically titled The Best of Robbie Fulks, collects B-sides, live tracks, and assorted studio outtakes recorded across the ’90s, and it contrasts Fulks’ strengths with his weaknesses as markedly as anything he’s ever released.
Take a jumpin’, neo-swingin’ little number called ”Love Ain’t Nothin’.“ Telling the story of a formerly struggling country singer, Fulks sings, ”But now he’s got a label and a new hit platter, singin’ åLove isn’t all, but love is all that matters.’ “ ”What a clever title that is,“ he comments sarcastically of the hit tune’s title. The line dismisses the superficiality of so much current Nashville fare, and deservedly so, but it is also typical of the way Fulks likes to position himself above his characters. It also explains why Fulks’ music, as good as it is, so regularly disappoints.
For one thing, Fulks thinks being clever is a very, very good thing. In fact, as is suggested by punny songs such as ”White Man’s Bourbon“ and ”Jello Goodbye,“ he believes cleverness is an end in itself rather than a tool for achieving some greater intellectual or emotional payoff. Even more frustrating, he allows himself to get away with lines that are the very definition of dull, not to mention filled with a toxic self-regard. The ”stinking ranks“ of the rockabilly scene he sneers at in ”Roots Rock Weirdos,“ for instance, include a ”washed-up cover band“ as well as fans who have ”dumb nicknames“ and who actually cry out to themselves, ”We like unpopular music!“ and ”We are the best!“ The song aspires to be a stinging send-up of retro pretensions, but it arrives as an ego-stroking hissy fit.
A hissy fit, I should add, that rocks harder than most every current roots rocker you’d care to name. And there’s the rub: Fulks’ music wouldn’t be so disappointing, let alone worth writing about at such length, if it didn’t also occasionally prove to be emotionally engaged, smart, and compassionate, not to mention just plain rockin’ in every good sense of the word. About every third or fourth song on The Best of Robbie Fulks is all of that. (Most of Fulks’ albums break down this same way, the exception being 1998’s major-label one-off Let’s Kill Saturday Night, where the good-to-bad ratio gets reversed.)
On the album-opening ”Jean Arthur,“ for example, Fulks offers his paramour an irresistibly jangly pop melodyhe nearly always provides an irresistible melodythat is as airy and beaming as infatuation itself. ”Parallel Bars“ (with Kelly Willis), ”Sleepin’ on the Job of Love,“ and ”May the Best Man Win“ actually use their clever conceits to some greater purposeand blast out hard, freight-train shuffles to boot. ”I Just Want to Meet the Man“ portrays, unironically and with seductive pedal steel, the scary obsession of a man who’s been replaced and can’t let go.
Mostly, though, The Best of Robbie Fulks is filled with naughty (and occasionally misogynist and racist) school-boy humor, condescending characterizations, and wink after joke after put-on. In ”Love Ain’t Nothin’,“ singing again of that mainstream country star he hates, Fulks tells us: ”Now, the bubbas all believe that he’s a soulful cat, he sings it like he means it, but he’s smarter than that,“ before concluding: ”Love ain’t nothing but show biz.“
Now, I would’ve sworn Fulks was way smarter than that himself. But damn if he doesn’t sing it like he means it.
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