Robbie Fulks – “Happy”
Way back near the start of the decade, in April 2002, I caught Robbie Fulks and band at Glasgow’s King Tut Wah Wah Hut, where he announced that he had a tribute CD to Michael Jackson in the can (Was it “Dear Michael – Love Robbie” or “To Michael – Love Robbie”? I’ll need to check that bootleg again…) and it would be released within the next twelve months or so…..fast forward eight years and the now nigh-legendary album finally sees the light of day. At the time of writing, it’s only available via download from the usual places – iTunes, Emusic, Amie Street – to name but three – but the physical release should soon be available to buy from http://www.robbiefulks.com
Why the delay? Well, the initial scheduled release time coincided with MJ’s revelations in the world’s media about his relationships with young boys – and Fulks declared that he thought it would be wrong to be seen to release the CD at that time as it could have led to erroneous, but quite pointed accusations of exploiting a situation that really didn’t need to be exploited…..so, put on the side-burner, Fulks still played tantalising glimpses of the project, many of which have surfaced on live recordings – Going back to Indiana, Billie Jean and Black or White making reasonably frequent appearances.
Then there was the Chris Cornell controversy – Cornell released a virtual clone of Fulks’ interpretation of “Billie Jean” – same key, same arrangement – with no credit to Fulks himself. Difficult to prove that he was ripping Mr. Fulks off, but if you listen to the two versions it’s hard not to believe that Cornell hadn’t heard Fulks’ version, which had been available on an agency site as an MP3 download for quite a while and was the only semi-official track from the CD that had leaked in its final form up until that point.
Forward to 2008 and Fulks and friends perform virtually the whole CD – and more (there’s no version of “Thriller” on “Happy”) at the Hideout Block Party, hinting that the MJ tribute might finally see the light of day. A glimpse here –
But that wasn’t all – the master tapes went missing – stolen? It looked like this tribute was never going to appear and would wallow forever in a “Smile” type limbo – but quietly and without fuss in early April 2010 a Google alert prompted me to discover that the album was finally with us; and here’s a summary
1. Going back to Indiana – if you’ve heard “Bloodshot’s turning Five” – this gets the same adenoidal hillbilly treatment.
2. Black or White – superbly produced, this blows itself out of the speakers. It rocks, with a capital “R”.
3. Billie Jean – well known to long time Fulks watchers – slow, mysterious and moody. A stirling reinvention of the original.
4. Mama’s Pearl – this surfaced on the recent 50 Vc Doberman download collection. Funky, catchy and a sympathetic reading that sounds like the band were enjoying themselves.
5. The way you make me feel – All toms, kick drum and bass with twin vocal from Nora O’Connor and a blistering Grant Tye solo. Somehow it also reminds me of Badfinger.
6. Man in the Mirror – Great playing which treats the song with respect – it doesn’t veer too much from the blueprint of the original – and lets the song-writing stand for itself.
7. Ben – Stretching Fulks’ vocal range to the limit, this comes over as a straight cover, with nice touches of steel.
8. Don’t stop ’til you get enough – played initially with an African rhythmic feel, this transmutes seamlessly into a newgrass jam – and it works.
9. The girl is mine – After a relaxed smooth jazz opening, Robbie and Nora trade innuendo around the fact that they suddenly realise that there’s a man and woman falling out over a woman…
10. Don’t let it get you down – Given the Muscle Shoals treatment, this has very much a 70’s pop-funk feel.
11. Privacy – Wow. I haven’t got the credits, but I’m pretty certain that this is the one that Fulks’ long-time buddy Steve Albini appears on – and even if I’m wrong, it’s very Rapeman/Big Black – yes, that far out there. I thought that this would be the one that I’d be pressing fast forward for, but it’s worth sticking with. A chaotic grungy sound collage.
12. Farewell my summer love – by way of contrast, this picks up the innocent feel of the young MJ and is probably Fulks’ best vocal performance of the lot.
13. Happy – a brief, melancholy instrumental that has a feel of Scottish folk about it.
14. Goin’ back to Goin’ back to Indiana – bringing the music and story full circle, this mixes up track one with samples, loops and voice-overs “back to where I started from” is prominently repeated. It’s a metaphor for the way that Jackson’s life was twisted and distorted from its original innocence into something fascinating but darker (check the slightly discordant minor key loops) and more confusing.
Very different from the Johnny Paycheck tribute that Fulks put together a few years ago, but as much a labour of love, this is a grown up tribute to an icon – it acknowledges his innocence, his ridiculousness and his tragedy and pain with a thoughtfully sequenced choice of songs.
File under “Country” at your peril, though….