Friday, April 13, 2007

CD REVIEW: Robbie Fulks' "Revenge"

Label: Yep Roc Records

Over on an review, I saw Robbie Fulks referred to as “alt-country’s smartest smartass.” I absolutely love this because it is a perfect description of Fulks. Anyone who has experienced his music knows that his snarling sense of sarcastic humor is a highlight of all of his albums. So too is his brilliance. Fulks, who was given a scholarship to Columbia University (yes… the Ivy League Columbia University) out of high school, writes arguably the most intelligent country song of anyone in the underground scene. With Revenge, Robbie shows that this intelligence does not stop at songwriting. His 2007 double-live album is not only an excellent musical achievement. Like a musical essay, it has an introduction, two solid discs of music that represent different sides of the Fulks live experience, and a great conclusion, bringing everything together. It is truly a flawless package.

Disc 1 (entitled “Standing”) of Revenge finds Robbie Fulks performing with a full band. Needless to say, it rocks. One can tell that Fulks has been touring with this band for a long time because the sound is tight throughout the entire disc. The disc begins with the hilarious song/skit “We’re on the Road.” It just may be the most perfect intro to a live album ever made. Robbie jokingly introduces each member of the band as they are “driving to the next show.” However, a call comes in from the head of the record company. They want a new record, quickly, and are not willing to lend him much money to get it done. Fulks’ solution? Make a live album! One can’t help but chuckle, and the good times never stop as ten solid songs follow. Fans are treated to a great mix of outstanding renditions of Robbie’s past gems as well as three new numbers that are sure to please. Heartbreak never sounded so much fun as it does on these takes of “Goodbye, Good Lookin” and “Rock Bottom Pop.1.” The live versions of songs like “Mad at a Girl” and “Busy Not Crying” sound even better than their studio predecessors, and Robbie really pours his soul into his tribute to the classic country sound, “The Buck Starts Here.” The new songs are excellent too. “Fixin to Fall,” the tale of a poor sucker about to take the plunge into the land of roses and chocolates, would be a highlight on any of Fulks’ studio albums, and is a winner here as well. The depressing story of denial “You Don’t Mean It” is good, and the North Carolina celebration “Cigarette State” is even better. The latter track must be a live-show hit, and it is a perfect addition to this collection. It’s hillbilly madness at its best! Finally, the first disc of Revenge ends with its strongest rocker, a fine version of “Let’s Kill Saturday Night.” Obviously, Robbie Fulks knows what rockin’ country is supposed to sound like!

So that’s that, right? Great live album! Nope, kids, it gets even better. To only share a full-band set would be giving fans only one side of the Robbie Fulks live experience. Fulks also does stripped-down, “Unplugged” style acoustic shows, and thus, this side is represented on “Sitting,” disc two of Revenge. In many ways, this disc is even more interesting. Listeners are presented with three originals (two of them new), an outstanding set of covers, and some fun banter with the audience. The acoustic Fulks originals are great. The dark “In Bristol Town One Bright Day” sounds even bleaker here than on Couples in Trouble. It also sounds older, as though it could have been recorded decades ago. Think O Brother Where Art Thou. “On a Real Good Day” shows a man struggling to put on a happy face despite his depression. Finally, “I Like Being Left Alone” is classic Fulks. Yes, it’s comical on the surface, but a thick layer of sadness lies just below. It’s the kind of song that no one else could pull off as well. The covers are great too, including great renditions of “Bluebirds are Singing for Me” and “Away Out on the Old Saint Sabbath,” a duet with Kelly Hogan. We are even given a cover of Jimmie Logsdon’s odd-but-fun “I Wanna Be Mama’d,” which was also featured on Fulks’ cover record, 13 Hillbilly Giants. However, it is Fulks’ most unlikely cover that ends up being the highlight of the disc… a take on Cher’s 1998 hit “Believe.” Using hiccup vocals in spots to mimic Cher’s original, it is obviously hilarious. Yet, somehow, he makes it sound… heartfelt, even meaningful. This is the genius of Robbie Fulks, and it can be found throughout both discs of Revenge.

With a track listing that covers songs from almost all of Fulks’ albums (except for the “b-sides” disc The Very Best of Robbie Fulks and, interestingly, his most recent release Georgia Hard), this live record could easily be called a “greatest hits” release. Fortunately, it is even better. Fulks hates most live albums, even going so far as to call them “ripoffs,” filled with bad versions of old songs. So, he made sure to include solid new originals and great covers in addition to excellent versions of old favorites to prevent his own live album from earning that dubious title. Of course, to fans of Robbie Fulks, this is not surprising. From the superb introduction track to his concluding remarks, from “Standing” to “Sitting,” Revenge is a reflection of the artist that created it… pure brilliance.

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