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FEBRUARY 21, 2000: 

Robbie Fulks, The Very Best of Robbie Fulks (Bloodshot)

Memo to Randy Travis:

Have I got a song for you. "I Just Want To Meet the Man" is the kind of tough, classic country song that just isn't written anymore, and it's the kind of song that could really jump-start your stalled career. No more bit parts in truck-driver movies; you can reclaim the neo-traditional crown from all these current Nashville pretty boys with a song like this. Think Porter Wagoner's "The Cold, Hard Facts of Life." Think classic George Jones.

The song is written in the voice of a man camped out in the driveway of his ex's house. "I just came to meet your new friend, so won't you have him step outside?" he asks her. Weeping pedal steel drives the man on, and the situation deepens: We learn that the man singing the song shares a child with the woman, and he's worried that her new beau might be taking his place (shades of Hank Williams' "My Son Calls Another Man Daddy"). "Don't tell me it's just the two of you," he says, moving toward the door, "I see his shadow on the blinds. He can't hide in there forever and, darling, I've got so much time." The woman peeks out the door, eyes the bulge in his pocket suspiciously, and then comes the punchline: "No, that's nothing in my pocket, just a toy I brought for Jane -- I couldn't bear to see her hurting. Now Daddy's here to kill [!] the pain."

The reason I'm recommending this song to you, Mr. Travis, is that the man who wrote it, Chicago-based, alt-country iconoclast Robbie Fulks, can't do it justice. Fulks' punk take on country denies the need for chops, and as someone who values imagination over virtuosity, I'm sympathetic to his cause, really I am. But country music is still a singer's game, and Fulks can't really put over his most serious songs -- not, at least, without denying their gravity. On his new "The Very Best of Robbie Fulks," the young guy strangles this great song. He makes it a joke, has us laugh at the man standing there, on the outside looking in. But the song needs someone with the vocal strength and personality to get in this guy's head, to make his pain real.

Fulks the singer acquits himself better elsewhere, because nowhere else on this album does Fulks the songwriter demand quite as much. His duet with the great Kelly Willis on "Parallel Bars" exposes his vocal limitations too, but give the guy credit for penning such a witty bit of quintessential country wordplay.

"The Very Best of ..." is no greatest-hits record (what hits?). It's actually all new material -- this is the kind of sardonic humor we outside of Nashville actually get a kick out of sometimes, Mr. Travis. And don't worry if you don't "get" "Roots Rock Weirdoes." It's about what is called a "subculture," and I know you big-demo types in Music City don't really cotton to that, but take my word for it that this mock(ing) anthem is way overdue. It's where (and here's his punk side) Mr. Fulks actually attacks his own fans (No, Mr. Travis, they don't have Fan Fair on the indie circuit). It's really funny, I promise, especially when he sings "with our comrades in alt-country and brothers in neo-swing, we'll reclaim music from the kids."

This Fulks, he's a good guy, Mr. Travis. He actually spent a year in Nashville trying to make it as a professional songwriter, but it didn't work out. Give him a second chance, Mr. Travis; it'll work out great for both of you. -- Chris Herrington

Gran Torino, Two (Gran 03)

"Coup d'état" -- the upbeat instrumental track that opens Knoxville-based Gran Torino's horn-intensive sophomore release -- makes at least a few promises that the remainder of "Two" fails to keep. A fairly kicking tune, the song advertises flesh and blood to come … somewhat falsely.

Basically, the trouble starts when the vocals do. I just can't seem to give a shit when lead singer Chris Ford queries, "Are we gonna make it one last time?/Are we gonna take the time to try?/Are we gonna make it one last time?/I think we can make it, girl."

Wake me up when the lawyers get involved.

These nine white and black guys are paint-by-numbers R&B "funksters," and that's that. But I'll bet they give good time at the club. And let's admit it -- there's a marked difference between the pursuit of integrity and a gleefully wasted night of dumb fun on the town. -- Stephen Grimstead

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