Have all those ya-hooing frat boys who follow Robert Earl Keen around finally moved on from Lone Star and Copenhagen to LSD?
You gotta wonder, and that's not only because the singer's new Farm Fresh Onions features cover art that is alternately groovy, color-shifted, and chicken-scratch scrawled, with a John Deere-sized white onion bulging out of an infrared field. The post-hippie approach dominates the midsection of the album itself - especially the title track, which builds to a seriously goofy wailing chorus that would be totally ridiculous if it weren't in keeping with the way the surrounding lyrics obsess over the minutiae of organic produce.
I can't say I'm happy to hear the slacker funk that makes "Floppy Shoes" stink of patchouli at 30 paces, but I am intrigued by an album where that stylistic leap sits pretty comfortably beside electric blues, standard REK sing-alongs, and a James McMurtry cover. Keen may sing at one point that "I've been in this rut so long now, I believe I've found my groove," but he sounds less predictable here than he ever has in his career.
Here, his familiar band is joined on keyboards by former Small Faces member (and current Austinite) Ian McLagan, who makes a lot of the experiments work better than they otherwise might. Credit also goes to longtime guitarist/producer Rich Brotherton, who walks a fine line on a track like "Beats the Devil": the spooky, effects-laden chorus is always on the verge of sounding pompous, but Brotherton busies it up in a way that matches the chaos of the songwriter's lyrics without going overboard. Elsewhere, the producer gets his rock on, with long electric solos fleshing the chug-along "Train Trek" out to a full six minutes.
I'd love to be a fly on the frathouse wall when this stuff gets its first few spins - at least a handful of the tracks could inspire fistfights. Others, naturally, are just what the "rowdy crowd" wants: "Furnace Fan," for instance, is a rangy batch of anecdotes about the hottest leg of the Robert Earl Roadshow, full of nice details that sound drawn from life but don't have the self-obsessed quality that makes some other singer-songwriters insufferable.
Then, as if to prove he can still do it, Keen closes with a few of the contemplative tunes that drew attention to him in the first place. "Famous Words" is the most haunting, a pining collection of final moments between loved ones in which the singer has no company but a lonesome electric guitar. The song's only competition for the hearts of Keen's more sober-minded fans is his rendition of McMurtry's "Out Here In The Middle," where Shawn Colvin joins in for an unromanticized view of small-town life.
Buried at the record's end, after a couple minutes of silence, are slices of two variants on the title track, including one in which the band plays at being punk rockers. It'll remind old folkies of the jarring coda to Michelle Shocked's Short Sharp Shocked, but this burst of schizophrenia is hardly out of keeping with the rest of the album - where Keen somehow manages to pull off a half-dozen different styles and make them all sound like good ol' Robert Earl.
Speaking of Texans with die-hard but sometimes problematic fan bases, Columbia Records is putting the finishing touches on their series celebrating Willie Nelson's 70th birthday. The final four reissues will be on shelves next Tuesday: Tougher than Leather and Always on My Mind, the appropriately named collection Greatest Hits (& Some That Will Be), and the Merle Haggard collaboration Pancho & Lefty. These are from the peak of Willie's commercial success, of course, when the singer enjoyed the freedom to do basically whatever he wanted with a substantial recording budget behind him - including cutting an LP with Chips Moman, a producer better known for Memphis Soul than mainstream country. Nelson was as eclectic from album to album as Keen is on Farm Fresh Onions - it will be interesting to see if that approach treats REK as well as it did the Red Headed Stranger. •