Revenge! is the new release from Robbie Fulks, a 2-disc, 23-track "live record" that invests that term with fresh thinking. One disc stars the songwriter's ferociously rocking four-man road band (and interpolates sound check and studio-grown material). The other has Robbie in an acoustic cabaret setting, and highlights his Carolina-bred flat picking and communicative dynamism. Together they form a singular document of the country contrarian's musical range - rock, bluegrass, honky-tonk, jazz - and spontaneity. Half the tracks are new ('Fixin' to Fall' with Casey Driessen's mind-altering violin; a flailing Carter Family drive-by with silken-throated Kelly Hogan at the wheel, an emotional read on Cher's 'Believe'), and all are newly fired, with an ideal blend of audiophile clarity and on-the-spot joy. More than sweet, Revenge! is a mid-career summation and vital addition from an artist who still looks curiously forward, and works best without a script. Digipak.
Fifteen years of recording and alt-country's smartest smartass has never released a live album or a greatest-hits collection (the odds 'n' sods Very Best Of
doesn't count). This two-disc set just about settles the score. On disc one, a good slice of Fulks's best songs gets the full roots-rock-weirdo treatment with his longtime road band: the closing triad "Rock Bottom, Pop. 1," "Cigarette State," and "Let's Kills Saturday Night" shows Fulks on top of his skewed country-rock game. On stage, he may distort and twist lines like a psycho-hillbilly jazz singer, but he'll never sing a song the same way twice. On the superior second disc, however, he plays acoustic, showing just how much he learned as a bluegrasser and just home much he's willing to chop and screw those lessons. His deathless folk homage, "In Bristol Town One Bright Day," is transformed into a fractured guitar epic, and his take on Cher's "Believe" (complete with hiccups to mimic the diva's robotic pitch-shifting) is as passionate as it is hilarious. Fulks claims he hates live albums: they're just rip-offs, with weaker versions of old songs, he says. So he adds a good number of unreleased covers and new original songs: "The Bluebirds Are Singing for Me," "On a Real Good Day," and "That's a Good Enough Reason" are especially fine. Yet if you're looking for an accurate document of what a Fulks show is like, you won't find it here. Jokes, banter, and spontaneous crowd interaction are minimized--with the notable exception of an extended intro to "I Like Being Left Alone," a sweet and sour comedy, and the best of his new tunes--and most tracks fade down over applause. As a record maker, Fulks's heart really wasn't into releasing a live set; as a performer, though, his heart, even at its most sarcastic, is never in doubt. One listen to the closing hootenanny stomp (featuring Kelly Hogan on harmonies) of the Carter Family's "Away On the Old Saint Sabbath" is all the evidence you need. --Roy Kasten