Revenge Is His: Robbie Fulks
Robbie Fulks called his first album Country Love Songs, and his successive career has been an ongoing explication of that title's true meaning: not so much love songs in a country music style as songs about one man's love for country music. Sure, Fulks has added plenty of first-raters, happy and sad, to that first category, but mostly he's been besotted with how the most timeworn country conventions unexpectedly renew themselves — how the familiar tropes of heartbreak can always be lent some subtle new inflection, how a play on words reveals the ambiguity within a seemingly stale, commonplace phrase.
As with so many infatuations, worship from afar would have been far less painful. Repeated attempts to write something for the mainstream country market only gave Nashville a chance to prove Fulks's love unrequited, as commemorated in 1997 by his self-explanatory “Fuck This Town.” And for once, the bitter artiste was right — Fulks must have been too funny for the gatekeepers or something. A Geffen contract a year later was almost instantly nullified by the merger of Universal and Polygram that laid waste to both labels'rosters. Now, for over a decade now, Fulks has enjoyed the creative comfort of the indie league, first on Bloodshot, now on Yep Roc, where the constraints imposed are largely self-inflicted.
Which brings us to the opening skit on Revenge!, Fulks's new live-double. After the jokey all-band number “We're on the Road,” we hear a simulated phone call from Yep Roc president Glenn Dicker, mocking Fulks's excellent 2004 Yep Roc debut Georgia Hard as an “artistic triumph” and demanding immediate product for the label. An unlikely scenario, even as a gag, but the set-up allows Fulks to indulge in another convention — the live double album. And in that tradition, we get new tracks (including the more winsome than cranky “I Like Being Left Alone”), oddball covers (Cher's “Believe,” more on which later), special guests (Kelly Hogan joining in for the Carter Family encore “Away out on the Old Saint Sabbath.”), crowd patter (though maybe less than you'd expect), applause (“Woo!”) and plenty of songs otherwise available only on Fulks'previous labels. If nothing else, it rescues “You Shouldn't Have” and “Let's Kill Saturday Night,” from the snatches of Geffen, though he leaves behind the acid “God Isn't Real."
Of course, live albums are, as Fulks puts it mid-way through disc two, “a fuckin'rip-off.” And though a knockout live performer, live recording isn't entirely Fulks's métier. Though some cavil about his voice, he's actually an underrated vocal mimic, capable of echoing Buck Owens and George Jones at opportune moments, when judiciously restrained by the discipline that multiple studio takes can enforce. Live, his vocals can be too rubbery, his inflections verging on tics. And like most live albums — including the two recordings at Chicago's Double Door, also available here — Revenge! sounds maybe half as much fun it must have been. But Fulks goes all out to make this one worth your effort. The first disc was caught live in Champaign, Illinois, and handles “Let's Kill Saturday Night” like the raver it will always be and “Mad at a Girl” like the lost power-pop classic it too will always be. The latter disc's a no-less-energetic acoustic set in Chicago, home of a seemingly infinite number of alt-country pros, capable of throwing some atonal chromatics into their picking on “I Wanna Be Mama'd.”
And throughout, Revenge! showcases Fulks'true gift: the more constricted a phrase is, the more nuance he can wring out of it. You can just imagine how many meanings a common expression like “You Shouldn't Have” can have — except you didn't and Fulks did. And some of his best jokes are tossed-off quips rather than punchlines, like “Alabama's grand/ The state not the band,” from the North Carolina tribute “Cigarette State.” Fulks even redeems that most ugsome indie cliché: the “ironic” cover of the pop hit done in a different style. But fear not, enemies of Travis'”Hit Me Baby One More Time” or Ted Leo's “Since U Been Gone” — Fulks's “Believe” is more in the rarefied class of Clem Snide's “Beautiful.” Fulks approaches the Cher hit with no sense of superiority, just the same sense of appreciation untainted by undue respect that he brings to the revamped folk ballad with his own “In Bristol Town One Bright Day.” As he moves out of the bridge on a falsetto, drops into a hush, then jumps up to a crescendo, you hear a man who admires craft deciding what he needs to do to express that admiration.
Though he's too funny for you to generally ponder about it, Fulks's mission is to determine the point that an artist's love for formalism can overflow into something like artistry. As much a smartass as he is, Fulks does adore a well-made song, and “Fountains of Wayne Hotline” typifies the smartass and the lover both. The track, on which Fulks advises callers on how to construct, yes, a Fountains of Wayne song, is less a parody than a wry exploration of the power pop tricks that band exploits. When it comes to formal infatuation, the only real rival alt-country types have are power-pop revivalists. But country will always have a leg up, because where power pop yearns to conform to tradition, part of the tradition of country music is how it wriggles out of its confines.