Robert Earl Keen, Jr. – Ready for Confetti – ALOS 65701, 47:11 ***1/2:
(Robert Earl Keen, Jr. – acoustic guitar, mandolin, vocals; Bukka Allen – accordion, Hammond B-3 organ; Rich Brotherton – classical, resonator and electric guitars, banjo, vocal harmonies; Deani Flemmings – vocal harmonies; Lloyd Maines – banjo, dulcimer, 12-string, baritone, resonator and electric guitars, mandolin, producer, ukulele; Pat Manske – congas, keyboards, percussion; Marty Muse – dobro, lap steel and pedal guitars, Wurlitzer organ; Riley Osbourne – piano, Wurlitzer organ; Mickey Raphael – harmonica; Tom Van Schaik – drums, percussion; Bill Whitbeck – bass, vocal harmonies)
The Austin, Texas music scene has generated talent from blues rockers Stevie Ray Vaughn and The Fabulous Thunderbirds to country artists Willie Nelson and Joe Ely. For three decades, Americana songwriter/singer Robert Earl Keen, Jr. has been a mainstay of the city known as the Live Music Capital of the World. Keen’s songs have been covered by Nelson, Johnny Cash, The Dixie Chicks and more; he’s a renowned live performer who tours up to 200 days a year; and has issued a solid stream of albums.
On his 16th record, Ready for Confetti, Keen reaches backward and forward for inspiration, where he matches compelling musical portraits and insightful lyrics with a playful sense of humor and optimistic fervor. Keen thrives on challenge and this time he reworked his playbook to come up with a fresh outlook. First, Keen decided to pen his new music while on the road instead of his usual approach of spending a few weeks by himself in his cabin. Keen also chose to keep his music more concise and melodic and use more universal themes, including the loss of love, living life to the fullest potential and the pursuit of a higher spiritual deportment.
The result is twelve cuts – nine by Keen, one co-written with friend Dean Dillon and two covers (Todd Snider’s “Play a Train Song” and the traditional gospel cut “Soul of Man”) – which balance upbeat positivity with reflective rumination. The title track signifies Keen’s attitude: cheerful, bouncy and highly melodic. Beneath the bright exterior, Keen says, lies something different. The song’s main personalities live on society’s fringes with a viewpoint and mental discontinuity where every day is a new day to celebrate, thus there is no past and no future to fret about.
Many of Keen’s tracks display an impression of going from place to place, of people surviving by being on the move. This perspective is epitomized by the first single, “I Gotta Go,” which has a steady sauntering beat courtesy of Keen’s long-time drummer Tom Van Schaik, while guitarist Rich Brotherton propels the tune with a coiled riff. The piece follows in the footsteps of many Keen narratives about outsiders on the lam: this time Keen constructs a tale of an outlaw abandoned at birth, who breaks away from an orphanage, steals a car and goes on a robbery spree, and ends his life when he’s caught cheating at cards and is killed: his epitaph, “I gotta go.” Then there’s the affable country-swinger “Top Down,” about a music star who has the world in his pocket. Keen provides a touch of sarcastic irony which underscores his rose-tinted parable. Keen’s best road chronicle, though, is the country-colored “The Road Goes On and On,” where the forthright narrator answers to, challenges and references Keen’s classic “The Road Goes on Forever,” from Keen’s 1989 release, West Textures.
Keen goes further into his past on an interpretation of his “Paint the Town Beige,” from A Bigger Piece of Sky (1993). Keen’s initial rendering was immersed in reverb and a bit top-heavy on the production. Here, Keen’s rearrangement is clearer and more concise, which heightens the compassionate account of a former troublemaking wanderer who is determined to endure small-town life even though he has some lingering doubts and a yearning to put the pedal to the metal.
Multi-instrumentalist and producer Lloyd Maines (The Dixie Chicks, Jerry Jeff Walker, many more) creates an impressive atmosphere which accentuates Keen’s mindset and individualism, helping bring out or encouraging Keen’s artistic discernment. For example, Maines utilizes a scratchy vinyl-like effect to introduce the kinship sketch “Lay Down My Brother,” he mixes mandolins and pedal steel to furnish a light Jamaican flavor to “Waves on the Ocean” and it was Maines who convinced Keen to end with a poignant rendition of the sacred ode “Soul of Man.”
1. Black Baldy Stallion
2. Ready for Confetti
3. I Gotta Go
4. Lay Down My Brother
5. The Road Goes On and On
6. Show the World
7. Waves on the Ocean
8. Top Down
9. Train Song
10. Who Do Man
11. Paint the Town Beige
12. Soul of a Man
— Doug Simpson
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