CD Review: Robbie Fulks

Revenge! Yep Roc
Music •••½ Sound •••½
I'm not quite sure whether to applaud Robbie Fulks for his daring versatility or to assail him for his lack of focus. If you enjoy his work, then Revenge! - a double-disc live set of material that is half-old/half-new, half-acoustic/half-electric, and entirely eclectic - will leave you further appreciating the breadth of his talent. If you're on the fence or unfamiliar with him, then you might be left confused by all the shape-shifting. After all, he changes voices, styles, guises, and points of view with the kind of aplomb that's implied in the album's feisty title.

Fulks's conundrum - a very real issue in this age of stylistic narrowcasting - is figuring out how to strike a balance between humorous and serious songs so that a coherent personality can emerge. (To a lesser extent, he can't decide how purely "country" he is either.) Tilt too far one way, and you're branded a novelty singer, like Martin Mull or "Weird Al" Yankovic. It's difficult, if not impossible, to have it both ways (or three or more ways). About the only singer/songwriters who can pull off this kind of balancing act are Jimmy Buffett and the late Roger Miller. Still, Fulks gives it a determined shot on Revenge!, and ultimately his musical-comedy shtick works because he never drops an entirely serious song into his set.

And hey, you've gotta admire him for refusing to be pigeonholed. Fulks approaches music from a lot of angles: deeply drawled contemporary country ("You Shouldn't Have"), melodic pop with folk tinges ("Mad at a Girl"), guitar-duo digressions that flirt with the avant-garde ("In Bristol Town One Bright Day"). That last one is a traditional-sounding folk tune that takes a decidedly nontraditional turn, à la Sandy Bull or Eugene Chadbourne. Fulks even covers Cher's "Believe" in such a poker-faced way, you don't know if he's being serious or satirical (or seriously satirical).