There have been times during the past decade when you would swear Texas troubadour Robert Earl Keen was applying to be the Lone Star equivalent of Jimmy Buffett.
Though part of a pool of emotively deep Austin-area songsmiths capable of merging dark country melodies that seem to blow in off the West Texas plains and story lines born out of rich folk and country tradition, much of Keen's performance reputation stems from poetic roadhouse tales like The Road Goes on Forever and Merry Christmas From the Family. In short, themes of violence and social dysfunction become fuel for hearty barroom sing-a-longs.
No, his audiences don't come dressed in shades and loud Hawaiian shirts, but their devotion to those predictably malicious themes, and the sort of lyrical merriment with which Keen dresses them up, nonetheless reflects a sort of Buffett-esque appeal.
Certainly that comparison only increases when you dip into the title tune to Keen's newest studio album, Ready for Confetti. With its tropical melodic drive, summery lyrical bent and carnivallike sense of celebration, the song is Keen's answer to Margaritaville but with wittier narrative detail and a still-strong dose of Texas Hill Country charm.
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The sunshine-drenched country of Top Down furthers that feel with steel guitar colors that sound as if they could have been pulled from a vintage Bob Wills swing classic or a Hawaiian lullaby — or both. Keen's own lyrical sense of Texas-crossed tropical serenity ("well, lickity split and whoopee-ti-yay") completes the mood.
But Keen is so much more than a musical escapist. Luckily, the more ceremonious moments from Ready for Confetti don't stand in the way of his surlier urges. I Gotta Go is proof. Played against a simple but rugged shuffle, Earl sings from the viewpoint of a drifter "born one morn on the day of the dead" who lives life in a state of unyielding restlessness. The song's title becomes a sort of agitated mantra repeated even when the protagonist is forced to utter his last words at gunpoint.
There are also slower, more solemn shows of faith at work on Ready for Confetti, including Lay Down My Brother, with its mix of jagged lap steel and mandolin, courtesy of veteran Texas music producer Lloyd Maines, and the reggae-fied reckoning that dominates Waves of the Ocean and its Zen-like slant on Buffett-style beachcombing.
Curiously, the album's last word goes not to a Keen original but to a hushed cover of the spiritual Soul of Man. Keen sings the tune with hushed contentment and a wary ear to the heavens. Perhaps, one surmises, more is about to rain down than confetti.