Don't let the title mislead you. "The Very Best of Robbie Fulks" contains none of the quirky songs that have made the Chicago singer-songwriter an alt-country favorite. You won't find "She Took a Lot of Pills (And Died)," from his acclaimed debut album, "Country Love Songs." Also missing is "Fuck This Town," Fulks' bitter (but hilarious) account of his three-year stint churning out "dumb-ass" mainstream country pablum for a Nashville publishing company, one of the highlights of his second album, "South Mouth." (None of his Nashville songs, it should be noted, were ever recorded.) And there's nothing from "Let's Kill Saturday Night," Fulks' major-label debut.
Instead, Fulks' latest is an odd assortment of singles, live recordings, soundtrack music and other obscurities. It's a hodge-podge collection, and the results are less than satisfying.
Not that it doesn't contain a few gems. "Jean Arthur," from 1992, shows how gifted a songwriter -- and a tunesmith -- Fulks is. With twangy guitars and a rolling beat, it's a countryish ode to the Hollywood screen star. "Her talent was not the kind/Learned at some school for actors," Fulks sings in his thin, reedy voice. "Her beauty might stump the minds/Of all the experts at Max Factor." Similarly, in "That Bangle Girl," three minutes of pop perfection, Fulks waxes poetic about Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles, the 1980s girl group: "I like the Bangle girl/She's too groovy/I love the way she sings/And I've seen her movie." Marshall Crenshaw wishes he wrote this one.
But on too many songs, Fulks just tries too hard, and the effort shows. "Sleepin' on the Job of Love" sounds like a rewrite of George Jones' 1965 hit "Love Bug." "May the Best Man Win," about a husband who loses his wife to his best friend ("So may the best man win/And may he wind up crying/ May he suffer for life/All her cheating and lying"), is a Harlan Howard knockoff, but without the master's touch.
"Parallel Bars," a duet with the sweet-voiced Kelly Willis, offers a novel conceit: Two lovers have a fight and retreat to separate watering holes to hit the bottle and forget their troubles, only to make up later. ("Parallel bars, one at my feet/One on the opposite side of the street/We're two hearts that just can't meet/After the heartache's gone.") The idea, however, is better than the resulting song, which is too clever for its own good.
Other songs are just plain odd. "Wedding of the Bugs," a live track from 1998, is about ... a bug wedding. "Gravid and Tense," from the soundtrack to a film titled "Jell-oh Lady," is a moody, percussive instrumental lasting all of 29 seconds. The cleverly titled "White Man's Bourbon" turns out to be a crude account of a liquor-induced sexual conquest of a "Zulu maid." ("She was wild as a boar, she was pussy galore/She was tender as a little pup/Yeah, we fucked and we fucked for a full 12 hours/And she was only warming up.") In the liner notes, Fulks defends the song as being in the tradition of such songs as "Ubangi Stomp," "Pickaninnies' Paradise," "Geisha Girl" and "Brown Sugar." "This modest contribution to the canon of amour exotique," he writes, "fell afoul of a few sensitive souls at the [recording] session who, after huffily demanding and horrifiedly perusing a lyric sheet, objected to being publicly associated with such a thing on the grounds that it plumbed new depths of bad taste." Turns out they were right.
Anyway, Fulks has moved beyond this kind of stuff. Just listen to the songs on "Let's Kill Saturday Night," which seem to come more from Fulks' heart and less from his twisted brain. For the best of Robbie Fulks, check out that album, along with his first two, and leave "The Very Best of Robbie Fulks" for the hardcore fans who need to own every last scrap.