Robbie Fulks' self-imposed touring exile of the last year and a half has been hell for fans who swarm to his over-the-top stage shows. The drought ends this week as Fulks and his 50 Voice Doberman All Stars take the stage Friday night at the High Noon. What's he been up to the last 17 months? Here's what: writing and recording 50, count 'em, 50 new songs. In February Fulks released them all in one shot at robbiefulks.com.
The pallet-load of songs sweeps in and out of nearly every corner of American music. Jazz, rock, mountain, Motown, country, hip-hop, soul. There's even an orbit around 1950s science fiction movie soundtracks in his zany, sweet tribute to a former planet, "Pluto (I Won't Forget You)."
If you're a Fulks follower, gorging on these tunes will be like getting turned loose in the Golden Corral after ten years of prison food. All but four cuts are original. The exceptions yank out Fulks' deepest roots (Harlan Howard and the Carter Family) and showcase his P.T. Barnum ability to put over someone else's pop (Beyoncé's "Irreplaceable").
Fulks calls the project the "Fifty Voice Doberman," named after a bit done by Texas comic Mincemeat called 5-Voice Doberman. So what's the story with so many songs at once?
"My wife was getting busier in her work and I wanted to travel less but not necessarily work less," Fulks says. "I hadn't gotten to write this much in a year since I started putting out records, and I felt it would help me find out where I was -- so to speak, the state of my writerly capabilities -- and perhaps push me farther along."
The 50 songs represent, "about 50% of what I started and 80% of what I finished," the recent New York City transplant says. For nearly half the tunes Fulks is supported by members of his live quartet: bassist Mike Fredrickson, guitarist Grant Tye, and drummer Gerald Dowd. Given the switch-up in genres -- sometimes within the same song -- Dowd's talents in particular shine brightly.
Among others throwing furniture into this bonfire include Scott Ligon on guitars and organ, the luminous vocals of Kelly Hogan and Nora O'Connor, and Robbie's brother Jubal, a classical violinist, who drops in on some of the jazzier numbers. Fulks is nothing if not a musical mischief-maker, and in this pursuit he's enabled by fellow bluegrass wise guy Danny Barnes and Fulks longtime acoustic sidekick Robbie Gjersoe.
The finger snapping rocker "Check Out the Career" speaks to the life Fulks put on hold in order to make these songs:
Check out the career. It's not a complex one.
Two-hundred pounds of gear.
This song is Fulks at his alchemist best, forging funny words into music that can stand on its own even without the wackiness. Does Fulks deliberately create that kind of balance in his songwriting? "A lot of artists have a habit of creating seamlessly professional atmospherics, which I find bore me easily," he says. "Why not prod the listener now and then to keep him awake? Or provide some complicating inconsistencies?"
Gerald Dowd's drumming gives a "Let's Kill Saturday Night" push to those very inconsistencies during the wild ride that is "You Never Were Lonelier." Here Fulks calls to us in his "I can live without you but just try to live without me" voice. A third of the way into the rave-up he throttles down into a nice recitation and then goes plaid with a respectable hip-hop bridge. Hip-hop?
"I love the hip-hop!" Fulks said. "I can't indulge in too much of it without coming off like a minstrel or like Pat Boone doing metal. But I hope the 'hip-hop bridge' strategy I used on a couple of songs will create interest and appreciation."
On the rural side of things Fulks, as he always has, moves smoothly between traditional mountain and the kind of alt-country that has defined that elusive term as well as anything else out there. Here Fulks channels the deepest crevices of country music. In a strange paradox, his songs deliver the honesty of his heroes (Harlan Howard, A.P. Carter, Dallas Taylor), yet many of these tunes are so radio-ready that Rascal Flatts could throw a dart at the play list and have a hit.
All right, perhaps "Goodbye Virginia" may be a little too high up in the mountains for Rascal Flatts (or at least their fans). The song stands out among a large handful of high-quality traditional compositions in this huge package. A Floyd County lament, the yearnings are current given these tough economic times. The poetry is timeless when Fulks' protagonist sings about an approach to life built on "a dream and a dreadnought." Listen for Kelly Hogan's soaring vocals here.
A quick rundown of other winners in the collection would have to include "Coastal Girls," a spirited shout-out of seductions driven by Scott Ligon's keys and an NRBQ-meets-Brian Wilson sensibility (with a walloping, big-hair 80's electric guitar break thrown in for good measure by Grant Tye). Fulks himself says this is one of his favorites of the batch.
There's "dirt roads and doublewides" of old-school country in "That's Where I'm From." Though you can hear it coming, the modulation in Kelly Hogan's interpretation of Harlan Howard's "Keep Those Cards and Letters Coming" pleases every time. Brace yourself for six-string swashbuckling between Robbies (Gjersoe and Fulks) during the flat-pick food fight that is "Caked Joy Rag."
And there's more. A back-porch view of the digital age comes into focus in "Waitin' on These New Things to Go." Gospel gets its go-go on in the flavorful, "Word Up! (Up with the Word of God)." And for the record, Fulks may be the first artist in American music history to combine the Hammond B-3 with the bodhran in the complex, tense "Arthur Koestler's Eyes." The collection also includes Fulks' original composition "Walk Hard," the poker-faced parody from the movie of the same name.
There are a few misses. "Fake Cake" has a "what was he thinking?" six-car pile-up feel to it, but that may be what Fulks wants. "Vanishing Jane" is rudderless, and the freaky "Schoolteacher!" goes beyond novelty into either a masterpiece or over my head.
But who could paint 50 Mona Lisas? As mentioned, Fulks and his seven-piece All Stars will bring a walloping portion of the tunes to life Friday at the High Noon. It's a seated show, which should serve the theatrical nature of the music and the performers well. The band includes the amazing Gjersoe as well as Doberman contributor/Bad Livers banjoist Danny Barnes. Also on board: drummer Gerald Dowd, violinist Jenny Scheinman, Joe Terry on keys, bassist John Abbey and singer Nora O'Connor.
Meanwhile, Chicago's WXRT-FM 93.1 Tuesday night program "The Eclectic Company" has been broadcasting one song per week from the collection since February -- and will continue to do so.
Even as Fulks takes these songs, finally, on the road, why is he offering the material as download exclusives rather than market the music as a string of CD releases?
"I think to put out four CD's separately would give it more weight than I want to give it," he says. "This keeps it casual and I won't feel like I'm ripping people off too badly if I scavenge from the 50 for my next CD or two. However if I sell a couple thousand of these, I might not put out more CDs. This sure is a lot easier and more eco-friendly than a CD release."
A version of this story first appeared on nodepression.com.