Monday, September 28, 2009

The Rose Hotel by Robert Earl Keen

I have been listening to an advance copy of this album for the last month. After many, many spins, I can say with conviction that this is the best album of Robert Earl Keen's celebrated career.

The record really displays Robert's impressive songwriting talent. With each new album, it becomes more apparent that Robert is keeping alive the tradition of great Texas songwriters. The torch has now been passed from Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Willie Nelson and Billy Joe Shaver to Robert Earl Keen. There are very few modern writers who consistently turn out songs of this quality.

These original songs, which include Rose Hotel, Something I Do, Throwin' Rocks, Village Inn and Wireless in Heaven are all good examples of the clever song pictures that come from the mind of REK. A number of different influences are found in his songs. There is a mix of traditional country themes, Robert's twisted humor and a dash of the darkness of Cormac McCarthy combined in his personal view of the world. Robert is able to take common events and turn them into songs that say a lot about the world we inhabit. He is able to avoid the cliches that are found in most modern country songs being written in Nashville these days.

With the release of Farm Fresh Onions in 2003, Robert began to break somewhat with his singer songwriter past. On that album, his band got more involved in the record. Although the more alt-country sound was a little hard and edgy and certainly puzzled some of his frat boy fans at the time, I think the album holds up very well today. His 2005 release What I Really Mean continued this process of growing his music into more of an ensemble sound. Once again, the band played a bigger role on the record. The banjo by Danny Barnes added a lot and was hint of what was coming on The Rose Hotel.

Having been familiar with most of the original songs on the album in earlier acoustic versions, it was exciting to hear them with the backing of the band. If you have seen Robert's live show, you know that the players in his band are very talented. Rich Brotherton (guitar) and Bill Whitbeck (bass) are fans and students of great music and their playing reflects it. Marty Muse has great touch on the steel guitar. Tom Van Schaik always lays down a solid foundation with the drums. Their inspired playing at the live shows has finally been captured on an album.

Here are some of my impressions of the new songs. The album opens with Rose Hotel, which contains some vintage REK story telling. In this song, I see a picture of the hotel along the border in No Country for Old Men. I really like the chorus of Sometimes you run/Sometimes you fall/stall. An insightful Keen comment on the ups and downs of life. There is some nice work from the band, particularly the transition on the break from Rich (lead) to Marty (steel guitar). A good choice to open the disk.

Robert has always great taste when it comes to choosing songs to cover on his albums. His versions of James McMurtry's Levelland and Out Here in the Middle and Dave Alvin's Fourth of July have been high points on previous albums. I know Robert has a great affinity for the work of Townes Van Zandt. It is a treat to hear another Townes' song on one of his albums. Flyin' Shoes really fits his voice and the playing of the band. Bill's bass kicks it off and the band drives the song along. One of my favorites from the Van Zandt song book and well covered here. Compare this cut to the Steve Earle's covers on Townes and Earle's work is exposed for the boring crap that it is. Well done!

Thowin' Rocks sounds like it could have been on Farm Fresh Onions. The song has great keyboards and backup singing. The band really gets into this one. I am looking forward to hearing it live.

I have heard Something I Do several times in the acoustic version. The band adds a lot to these sweet lyrics. A nice example of Robert's whimsical songwriting and great work from the background singer. I especially like when she sings back: He kinda likes doing nothing. I also like the Beatles reference and the accordion at the end.

The Man Behind the Drums. What's not to like about REK singing about Levon Helm? This song was inspired by Robert playing at Levon's Midnight Ramble in Sept of 2008. I was at the show in New York City and had planned to go to The Ramble the next night. Unfortunately, I didn't end up going. That was a bad choice. This is a great song.

Village Inn is a beautiful little song. It is probably the best song ever written about a motel. Another example of Robert's ability to take everyday life and turn it into a song. It has a very pretty melody that reminds me of Road To Nowhere/Carolina on Walking Distance. I love the verse that starts: Midnight thunder storms/Blowing into town/Wind is kicking up/Rain is falling down. It might be my favorite song on the whole disk.

The album closes with a nice piece of REK wit, Wireless in Heaven. Can't have an REK album without a few laughs. After all, this is the man who wrote Merry Christmas from the Family, which is the definitive dysfunctional Christmas song. I love the verse:

The pretty little cashier girl looks up and smiles at me.
She says it is an honor. She knows who I am.
Her Grandpa plays the guitar and he's my biggest fan.

Once again, the band really shines on this cut. Marty rocks on his steel guitar. I really like the country rave up before the last verse.

If you are already a Robert Earl Keen fan, you are going to love this album. If you are not familiar with his music, this is a good place to start. Available on iTunes or from Amazon.