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Floating World aren’t usually known for releasing singer-songwriters, never mind Texas singer-songwriters! Now, at long last we have a double helping of country folk from the erstwhile Robert Earl Keen (I recall the days he was releasing records under the name of REK Jr, and I have the vinyl to prove it in West Textures (the best album he's ever made; one of the many great songs on the album is the ever popular “The Road Goes On Forever”), The Live Album that was recorded at Sons Of Hermann Hall, Dallas, Tx to go with his debut album, No Kinda Dancer on Philo Records, and later released on Sugar Hill.
Long time friend and, on a couple of occasions songwriting partner of Lyle Lovett, Keen combines hard driving and at times raucous grit with sensitive ballads. And there is also hit smart wit. Robert Earl Keen is as Alan Robinson rightly points out in his liner notes, a writer of quality fare. Little wonder the likes of Nanci Griffith, The Highwaymen, Lovett, James McMurtry, Joe Ely, George Strait, the Dixie Chicks and others have all covered his work. His descriptive lyrics, the earthy, at times raw vocal style have seen him doing the circuit and brightening out world since his self-funded debut in 1984. Keen’s 1998 Arista album Walking Distance is blessed with everything from the autobiographical “Down That Dusty Trail” to “Travelin’ Light” and “Billy Gray” to the wacky “Happy Holiday Y’all” (how Christmas might sound at the Keen’s). Others of note include the cleverly put together, and lively as they come entertaining “That Buckin’ Song”.
Produced by Gurf Morlix (guitars, pedal steel, mandocello) with the likes of Gene Elders, Lloyd Maines, Rich Brotherton, Bryan Duckworth, Bill Whitbeck, Ian McLagan, Ponty Bone and Tom Van Schaik in support there is a solid sound throughout.
Keen’s worth may have been overlooked in some quarters, but his intelligence and ability to enlighten and entertain is up there with his peers. He was after all inducted alongside Lovett and the late Townes Van Zandt into the Texas Heritage Singer-songwriter’s Hall Of Fame in 2012. Among the biggest tracks on the John Keane produced, Athens, Georgia record is his version of “Levelland”. A co-write with James McMurtry it is joined by the mandolin warmed (Tim Ryan) “I Wonder Where My Baby Is Tonight” and of a mellow feel the pedal steel (John Keane) and acoustic guitar (Rich Brotherton) plied “The Coming Home Of The Son And Brother” is one of his best. On picking up the tempo and showing greater urgency Brotherton’s electric lead guitar and Tim O’Brien’s mandolin shape a superb, REK at his best perfectly paced ramble, “Shades of Grey”. There is also a version of Dave Alvin's “Fourth Of July”, and though it may not be quite as captivating as Alvin's it does pass the test.
There is a feeling, Keen punches below his weight on Picnic but as noted does have its moments, and his duet with Cowboy Junkies’ act Margot Timmins final cut, “Then Came Lo Mein” offers much beauty, and with nothing other than Nancy Blake’s pristine cello and producer John Keene’s juggling acoustic, bass guitar and keyboards it certainly finds a comfortable place in one’s heart. Yes, Timmins sings background vocals on a good many tracks but can you imagine what a full-blown duet record would sound like!
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