The Very Best of Robbie Fulks
Leave it to insurgent country squire Robbie Fulks to parody himself from the git: The title of his latest CD is a kind of pun, suggesting a compilation of Fulks's nonexistent greatest hits. Actually, it's all-new material, and considering Fulks's past output, whether it's his best is, thankfully, open to question.
What isn't open to question is its quality and diversity. This CD spans homages to Jean Arthur and "Bangle Girl" Susanna Hoffs; the politically questionable, uproarious "White Man's Bourbon" (Fulks's X-rated addition to a canon that includes Ray Stevens's "Alley Oop" and the work of Screamin' Jay Hawkins); terrific country tunes such as "I Just Want to Meet the Man"; and the fervid instrumentals "Hamilton County Breakdown" and the all-too-brief "Jello Goodbye." Fulks made a foray into major label territory in 1997, recording the Let's Kill Saturday Night album for Geffen. While that CD contains some of his best songs, it suffers from overwrought production that exaggerates Fulks's deepest dilemma and greatest promise. The production is sparer and more resonant on Very Best, but the dilemma remains: Does Fulks want to be a serious songwriter or an ironist? He's so good at both, he raises the question over and over again -- which makes him very difficult to market as well as a perfect delight to listen to.
As usual, his voice is as flexible as his songcraft, spanning the dulcet, cynical tone of "I Just Want to Meet the Man" (a George Jones tune as imagined by Wes Craven) and the blowhard pop of "Leaving on a Jet Plane," Fulks's tribute to, yes, John Denver -- no wonder he slotted this last song as a "hidden" track. The musicianship, featuring such Fulks stalwarts as drummer Bobby Lloyd Hucks and bassist Lou Whitney, is impeccable, too. Fulks brings as much polish as he wants to his albums, which may be one reason that the Geffen disc seemed relatively inauthentic. Here, the degree of commitment Fulks brings to the tunes is unmistakable, no matter how light the topic or how heavy.