Robbie Fulks' career probably won't suddenly explode into the mainstream thanks to his new live album, Revenge! For one thing, the double-CD set showcases two very different sides of his musical personality. On disc one (or the "Standing" half of the album), he performs with his touring band, concentrating on humorous, up-tempo tunes that reference the classic country of George Jones and Buck Owens. Fans who've always enjoyed laughing along with Fulks will have plenty to smile about as he races through novelty favorites like "Cigarette State" or references a passel of classic 1960s jukebox hits on his own Bakersfield-besotted "Rock Bottom, Pop. 1."
Toss in a whole bunch of hot chicken-scratch guitar and country-rock licks from his club-tested band and you've got some ideal tunes for a twangy, quarter-barrel-fueled jamboree.
Disc two (the "Sitting" half of the album) couldn't be more different. Here Fulks goes acoustic, drawing on the years he spent both playing and teaching bluegrass and other mountain music in the Chicago area. Fulks being Fulks, only a portion of this performance caters to acoustic hardcores. For the NPR-listening crowd that went for the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack in a big way, there's a portentous rendition of his self-penned ballad "In Bristol Town One Bright Day" that brings together three-hankie cinematic drama with 16th-century songcraft. For historically minded purists, Fulks offers up a straight, surprisingly tender "The Bluebirds Are Singing for Me" and a galloping take on the Carter Family's "Away Out on the Old Saint Sabbath." The latter climaxes early when Fulks uses his best backwoods baritone to add some country-gospel gravitas to the tune's first few lines.
The above makes sense in the context of a more or less sober acoustic salute to the collective soul of Appalachia. But other songs on the "Sitting" CD don't. Certainly not Fulks' hearty cover of Cher's neo-disco hit "Believe," replete with an oddball interpretation of the vocoder effect that plays a central role in the original version. The same goes for the brand new "I Like Being Left Alone," a clever but rather slight bit of musical misanthropy that's not nearly as funny as the stage patter about writing songs in middle age that introduces it.
Then there are the extended flat-picking passages that feature Fulks solo and also pairing with guitarist Robbie Gjersoe and mandolin player Don Stiernberg. They range from fairly conventional down-home breakdowns to crazy quilts of progressive skiffling that owe something to Richard Thompson. Sometimes the two sizzle with ideas, but other times they sound like a couple guys fucking around on the front porch while they search for another tune they're all familiar with. When the latter happens, "Sitting" loses its way.
Of course, one of the reasons Fulks is beloved is that he pretty much does what he pleases. When he felt Nashville had wronged him, he penned the acid kiss-off "F*ck This Town." When he went to record his one and only major-label release, Let's Kill Saturday Night (whose perfectly realized title track closes out the electric side of Revenge!), he spent a good portion of his studio time working up hooky pop songs that sounded more like Rockpile circa 1976 than something that might strike a chord with mainstream or alternative country fans. When he returned to an indie label after his brief bout with the "industry," he changed course again, putting together an entertaining archival collection of obscurities and novelty numbers by old artists that hadn't seen radio play for decades.
So it really shouldn't be a surprise that Fulks hopscotches from comic material to serious weepers to slicked-up country shuffles to Cher covers on Revenge! Fulks is a maverick. He does things differently. If he'd delivered one of those unified, note-perfect concerts-in-a-can that most artists call live albums, you'd wonder if he'd finally quaffed the Nashville Kool-aid. And if that ever happened, well, it'd be a damn shame.