Alt-country singer Robbie Fulks's latest album, "Happy," is a collection of Michael Jackson covers, from the late pop singer's work with the Jackson 5 to his most famous solo hits. But, surprisingly, Fulks doesn't give all these songs the twang-pop treatment. Instead, he's all over the map, from the newgrass breakdown in the middle of "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" to the art-punk noise rendition of "Privacy," which features bassist Bob Weston and drummer Todd Trainer of the legendary Chicago band Shellac.
Although such stylistic jumpiness might seem disjointed on an album of originals, the common M.J. theme ties the songs together. Some of Fulks's covers don't stray far from the originals, such as the rocking "Black or White" or the folksy "Man in the Mirror," which finds Fulks sounding a bit like John Denver.
But many of Fulks's covers are reinterpretations. Simplicity and slowness lend "Billie Jean" a chilling atmosphere that boils to a fiery rage. Its lyrics are easily forgotten (or danced away) in the original, but Fulks masterfully brings the focus back to the song's narrative.
-- Catherine P. Lewis