Insurgent Country

Robbie Fulks is a walking, talking musical contradiction. After plying his songwriting trade in Nashville — only to find that his sensibility was about a mile left of what radio marketers could tolerate — Fulks embraced the emerging alt-country movement with quirky, sometimes snotty songs such as "Fuck This Town," a hate letter to Music City that appeared on his second Bloodshot album, 1997's South Mouth. Still, he couldn't say no when the majors came a-callin', and by the time of 1998's Let's Kill Saturday Night on Geffen, he showed he could stand toe-to-toe with insurgent country's best songwriters (Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, Whiskeytown's Ryan Adams) when it came to mixing pathos and humor.

Unfortunately, Let's Kill Saturday Night found Fulks unsuccessfully walking the line between Nashville sincerity and alt-country quirkiness, and neither crowd embraced it. When Seagram/Universal acquired Geffen, Fulks was one of many acts that got cut, and now he's back with alt-country-friendly Bloodshot. His ironically titled new release, The Very Best of Robbie Fulks, is an inconsistent work, though maybe that should be expected from a compilation of B-sides, lost tracks and unreleased material. It's also proof positive that he's a far more engaging artist when he keeps his wiseguy tendencies in check.

On such songs as "Sleepin' on the Job of Love" and "Parallel Bars" (RealAudio excerpt), Fulks uses his wit to amplify his emotions rather than to hide them. The latter song, a duet with Austin songstress Kelly Willis, deftly paints a picture of two hopeless lovers — the title referring both to the taverns they drink in separately and the prison cell of their romance. Meanwhile, "Roots Rock Weirdoes" (RealAudio excerpt) hilariously skewers retro hipsters who listen to rockabilly and swing: "Fishnets for every woman, lipstick as red as flame/ For every man a tattoo, a Chevy and a dumb nickname/ Cigarettes in every shirt sleeve, black leather on every back/ Fanzines in every bookstore, LPs in each record rack." And on the heartbreaking ballad, "I Just Want to Meet the Man," Fulks sets aside the jokes altogether for an earnest weeper about a lovelorn fool standing on his ex's front porch, begging to meet the guy who stole her away.

Once he crosses the line too far, though, it's another story. "You Break It You Pay" is silly and slight, as is "Wedding of the Bugs." And all the irony in the world can't defend "White Man's Bourbon" (RealAudio excerpt), a just-plain-offensive track about a great white hunter who conquers a sexually reluctant Zulu native by getting her drunk. Factor in the album's cartoon cover and Fulks' self deprecating liner notes, and the impression of Fulks that still sticks the most is of someone trying too hard to get on Dr. Demento.