The Reader's Choice: Robbie Fulks
I wouldn't hesitate for a minute to say Robbie Fulks is the best country artist in Chicago—what bothers me is that the title seems so inadequate. I could also easily nominate him as the city's best rock act—his 1998 album Let's Kill Saturday Night is an overlooked rock masterpiece. It's been almost four years since Fulks released a studio album, but late last month he started selling a massive downloadable trove of MP3s on his Web site: 50 brand-new songs, most of them originals, collectively called 50-Vc. Doberman and totaling three hours and 20 minutes. I'm still making my way through it, but what I've heard so far covers most of the interests he's cultivated as a student of pop craft: honky-tonk, Motown, power pop, rockabilly, folk rock, murder ballads, stomping 90s Nashville country rock, novelty hokum, even a little ragtime. It's awe inspiring and a little daunting—and he could probably produce something like it every five or six months if he put his mind to it.
As a singer, guitarist, songwriter, and entertainer, Fulks is a consummate pro, and his utter mastery of those roles allows him to subvert them, often with a stinging but hilarious nastiness. He's fiercely intellectual, yet balances his outsize smarts with crowd-pleasing corn, which keeps him from coming off as cruel or insincere. He might parody a mainstream country singer like Shania Twain, but even as he skewers her cheesy pandering he demonstrates a real admiration for her craft. On his cover of Cher's "Believe," from his previous release, the live album Revenge! (Yep Roc), he spoofs the singer's Auto-Tuned vocals and overdone sentimentality and simultaneously underlines the song's melodic power. Despite his unself-conscious love of pop, though, Fulks has given his heart to country music—he throws himself into every one of its subgenres with devastating precision and contagious joy. His next local shows are May 2 at SPACE in Evanston and May 3 at the Old Town School. robbiefulks.com. —Peter Margasak
& Our readers' choice: Devil in a Woodpile