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Robbie Fulks

Robbie Fulks
The Very Best of Robbie Fulks

Robbie Fulks is that rarest of pop commodities: a wiseass singer-songwriter who's actually funny. Over the course of four longplayers, Fulks has brought some much-needed comedic vibrancy to the boot-gazing domain of alternacountry, skewering Nashville's country-music mainstream ("Fuck This Town") and crafting love songs that are both bitter ("Forgotten but Not Gone") and bittersweet ("We'll Burn Together"). Fulks and his razor-sharp band, led by ace guitarist D. Clinton Thompson, move deftly from tough honky-tonk to taut Western swing, making pit stops along the highways of bluegrass, rockabilly, blazing boogie-woogie, even shimmering power-pop. Imagine a less smug NRBQ, and you get the idea.

Although the title reflects his endearing self-effacement, The Very Best of Robbie Fulks -- a collection of B-sides, compilation cuts, and outtakes -- indeed contains some of Fulks' best music and hangs together as well as any of his previous albums. Stretching back more than ten years to his stint with the Chicago bluegrass group Special Consensus, The Very Best unassumingly showcases Fulks' panoply of influences and his gift for turning heartache into hilarity. "You Break It -- You Pay," "May the Best Man Win," and "Sleepin' on the Job of Love" are all about as cynical as you'd think, but Fulks makes them jubilant through the artistry of his verbal swordplay and the earnest twang in his voice, which more times than not recalls the bubbly, wide-eyed enthusiasm of vintage Buck Owens. And the cast of musicians here -- which includes the Skeletons, in addition to Fulks' usual assortment of players -- comes pretty close to evoking the romp-and-stomp fireworks of Owens' Buckaroos.

Elsewhere Fulks duets with the terrific honky-tonk heroine Kelly Willis on "Parallel Bars;" lashes out at goofy, neorockabilly "Roots Rock Weirdoes;" and pays homage to the beautiful Susanna Hoffs on "That Bangle Girl," a piece of majestic pop worthy of Nick Lowe's first album. When he gets all serious on the aching ballad "I Just Want to Meet the Man," Fulks just about breaks your damn heart into pulsating little pieces. Be sure to hang around a few minutes after the last song: There's a hidden track -- Peter, Paul and Mary's "Leaving on a Jet Plane" -- that finds Fulks sounding all the world like Gene Pitney. -- John Floyd

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John Floyd