Robert Earl Keen – Farm Fresh Onions
“It’s the little things,” Robert Earl Keen once sang with switchblade humor, “that piss me off.” Here, it’s the little things that elevate a typically solid selection of material from the veteran troubadour into the most musically compelling album of Keen’s career. Little things like the interweave of Marty Muse’s steel guitar and the organ of Ian McLagan on the album-opening “Furnace Fan”. Like the warm harmony of Shawn Colvin on the wry reading of James McMurtry’s “Out Here In The Middle”. Like the runaway locomotive momentum that guitarist Rich Brotherton (who also produced the album) gives “Train Trek”, its verses a string of coal cars that never slow for a change-of-pace chorus.
If such embellishments serve to shift some of the emphasis away from Keen’s lyrics, well, that’s all for the best. Not that Keen — a very funny, clever and ambitious writer — has lost anything in terms of lyrical ingenuity, it’s just that his words have frequently had to carry too much of the load, letting the music seem like little more than an afterthought.
When a writer is prized for his sense of humor (as twisted as Keen’s can be), such an approach can reduce songs to a series of setups and punchlines. The problem with joke songs is that once you’ve gotten the joke, you don’t really need to hear the song again and again. Further compounding that challenge is the singer’s limited vocal range, which can have a deadpan charm of its own, but when a guy sings in a monotone it’s all the more crucial to keep the musical settings from sounding monotonous. (Covering McMurtry makes a lot of sense for Keen — indeed, it’s the second time Keen has done so, following “Levelland” — for their vocal limits are similar.)
Farm Fresh Onions rises above those concerns. From the funk underpinnings of Riley Osbourn’s clavinet on “Floppy Shoes” to the lazy Louisiana atmospherics of Claude Bernard’s accordion on “Gone On” to the tinges of psychedelia on the harder-rocking “Beats The Devil”, the musical arrangements here show as much inspiration as Keen invests in his lyrics. He and Brotherton (whose sharp-edged guitar lines and array of effects suggest a Lone Star Richard Thompson) refuse to pander to the faithful by settling for easy laughs and folksy, rootsy readymades. The result is an album without a throwaway cut.
The songs themselves serve as stretching exercises for Keen. The title number suggests Guy Clark’s “Homegrown Tomatoes” ingested with magic mushrooms (later reprised as a hardcore/homespun mash-up of a bonus cut, like the Circle Jerks meet the Beverly Hillbillies), while “Let The Music Play” channels the lonesome spirit of a melancholy Hank Williams.
Both “Furnace Fan” and “All I Have Is Today” take a matter-of-fact approach to a musician’s life on the road, the latter distilling a lifetime’s wisdom into an inspirational chorus that suggests a roadhouse equivalent of The Pilgrim’s Progress. After all these years of what he calls “tryin’ to make a livin’ out of shiny wood and steel,” Keen sounds here like an artist renewed.