For Robbie Fulks the silliness that he is known for has been replaced here with an undeniable sincerity that bristles with an intensity that vacillates between restraint and exuberance on his reinterpretation of Bob Dylan’s Street Legal. On 16, Fulks’ source material demands a new voice from him, and he delivers – at times he truly sounds like someone else, simultaneously familiar and unknown. A long list of fellow Chicago musicians brings this adaptation to life including: Robbie Gjersoe, Jenny Scheinman, Casey McDonough (of The Flat Five & NRBQ), Scott Stevenson, Alex Hall (of The Flat Five), Scott Tipping, Scott Ligon (of The Flat Five & NRBQ), Jason Narducy (of Split Single & Superchunk & Bob Mould), Gerald Dowd, Yvonne Gage, Joan Collaso, Faith Howard, Keely Vasquez, Ora Jones, Bethany Thomas, Grant Tye, Pat Williams, Eric Schneider, Paul Mutzabaugh, Mark Olen, Jason Adasiewicz, John Abbey, Doug Corcoran, Steve Duncan, Nora O’Connor (of The Flat Five & The Blacks), Joe Camarillo (of The Waco Brothers), Fred Lonberg-Holm, and Jim Dinou.
Album opener “Changing of the Gaurds” could comfortably sit in the midst of a Joe Henry record as Fulks contemplates, “desperate men, desperate women divided…merchants and thieves hungry for power,” and, “empty rooms where her memory is protected, where the angel’s voices whisper to the souls of previous times“ over slow building orchestration. “New Pony” bucks with the fire of a tent-revival meets a Detroit garage rocker. “I had a pony her name was Lucifer,” Fulks declares with vocals and guitar that spit venom over questioning backup singers; “how much longer?” they ask. The response is a gut punch guitar solo; “everybody says your using voodoo…you know that great god that you been praying to is gonna give you back what you been wishing on someone else,” he snarls. This “New Pony” is wild, unbridled, and not ready to be broken anytime soon. “Baby Stop Crying” finds an “Easy Like Sunday Morning” groove over confessional lyrics, a warm organ tone, and a sax solo that shines a light on the best aspects of easy-listening radio formats. Fulks transforms schmaltz into sincerity through sheer will and honest performance. “Is Your Love in Vain” treads similar territory.
Fulks tackles “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)” with a slow trod as sparse instrumentation builds into a cacophony of drums, cymbals, xylophone, and guitar that evokes that confusion and tribulation before resolving into Fulks’ closing whisper. “True Love Tends to Forget” finds Fulks embracing horns and a bouncy arrangement pulled straight from Motown’s biggest hits; it’s a familiar sound that forces toe-tapping without feeling derivative. “We Better Talk This Over” bristles and bucks with country rock spunk that is open-road-windows-down-radio-ready. Fulks sings, “We better talk this over, maybe when we both get sober, you’ll understand I’m a lonely man doing the best I can…I guess I’ll be leaving tomorrow, if I have to beg, steal, or borrow,” as he plays with traditional country themes and lyrics that evocate an entire songbook of imagery from tear-in-your-beer country to Midnight Moonlight bluegrass. “Where Are You Tonight (Journey Through Dark Heat)” closes with the most unique arrangement of this collection. A punchy – almost electronica – organ and David Byrne-esque vocal initiate this moody tale of solitary travel and longing before breaking into a dark angry ‘80s left-of-the-dial rocker.
16 finds Robbie Fulks expanding on an already well-established and critically respected career. Here Fulks via Dylan takes on the same universal struggles he always has with a voice whose message can’t be misread through an air of playful sarcasm. Fulks is unafraid to be playful with the source material, however. A note taken from Dylan’s own play book; there has probably never been a singer more willing to reinterpret is own songs into at time almost unrecognizable forms than Bob Dylan. Join Robbie Fulks on this journey in Dylan’s Street Legal and find new meaning beyond the darkness hiding in the light; pick up a copy of 16 from Bloodshot Records today.
Review by H.R.Gertner