Robert Earl Keen/ R.B. Morris | Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Robert Earl Keen/ R.B. Morris 

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As his recent debut on Arista Austin, Picnic, suggests, Texan Robert Earl Keen never really had a chance in Nashville: his own voice is too awkward, and his lyrics are too dark and twisted for some toothy Opry singer to spit out, much less score a hit with. Produced by John Keane (who's twirled knobs for R.E.M., the Cowboy Junkies, and the Indigo Girls), the new album frames his narratives with beautifully crafted melodies and a lean but muscular instrumentation that veers closer to folk rock than anything he's recorded over the last decade. But the stories--those terse, tragicomic stories--remain the same. The album's opener, "Undone," pokes a little fun at the cyclical, oppressive misery and bad luck of a two-bit loser looking everywhere for excuses: "Dead end jobs payment plans / Broke down trucks welfare checks / Child support and back-seat sex / You'd kill yourself but you hocked your gun / You built a noose but it come undone." And the gentler "Then Came Lo Mein," a duet with Margo Timmins, uses an explosive meal at a Chinese restaurant to symbolize the turning point in a relationship: "But I held your hand 'til you calmed down again / And picked out the rice in your hair." Keen's terrific live, even if his wordy banter can get a bit too clever. Opener R.B. Morris started out as a poet, and his verbal economy shows on his stunning debut, ...Take That Ride... (Oh Boy). Though the album sometimes sounds like a roots-rock sampler--there's the Nick Lowe-ish stomp of "World Owes Me," the Irish strains of "Ridin' With O'Hanlon," the gospel of "Glory Dreams," the blues rock of "Take Time to Love"--Morris's expressive, rough-hewn vocals tie the material together well enough. In blustery storytelling and sensitive rumination, his lyrics are consistently thoughtful and vivid; the title track, for example, explores the hazy border between living a full life and dying for it, citing James Agee and Hank Williams as artists who ultimately perished for their work. And if the proceedings occasionally get a bit too erudite, Morris's super band, which features Kenny Vaughan on lead guitar, balances the brains with brawn. Thursday, August 28, 9 PM, FitzGerald's, 6615 Roosevelt, Berwyn; 708-788-2118. Keen also opens for Jimmy Vaughan on Wednesday at 9 PM, House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn; 312-527-2583 or 312-923-2000. PETER MARGASAK

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Robert Earl Keen photo by Glen Rose/ R.B. Morris photo uncredited.

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