Robert Earl Keen

Ready for Confetti

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Sometimes you need to go back to the beginning to remember where you came from. Robert Earl Keen has obviously taken a long, hard look at the music he's been making since 1997's Picnic, the album that put him on the map commercially and made him a superstar in Texas. Keen's records after 1994's Gringo Honeymoon have, no matter how commercially successful and stylistically and sonically imaginative, lacked the focus of his earlier ones. Ready for Confetti, despite its title, is the most natural-sounding, poetic Keen album since 1994. That doesn't mean he's gotten pretentious; nor that he's lost his sense of humor. There is precious little here that's extra; the writing reflects a steely eye for detail, arresting images, hooky melodies, and incisive vision; and, produced by Lloyd Maines, it contains an exquisite sense of balance. "Black Baldy Stallion" begins with Rich Brotherton's nylon-string guitar playing classical and flamenco motifs. Keen introduces his lonesome, bittersweet melody backed by an instantly memorable chorus. This song feels like it could have been included on 1993's Bigger Piece of Sky. Keen actually revisits that album by re-recording "Paint the Town Beige." While it doesn't replace the earlier version, it underscores its meaning from a place of wisdom, with Maines' pedal steel, and organic percussion coloring a slower tempo. The title track employs synthetic beats playing Caribbean rhythms, a perfect, saucy accompaniment to a nearly journalistic narrative on life's ironies. Country-blues and knee slaps fuel the darkly "I Gotta Go," with killer resonator guitar from Maines. "Lay Down My Brother" begins like it's coming out of a scratchy 78 before shifting into an elegiac country song. "The Road Goes on and on and On" is a scathing indictment disguised as a country shuffle, while "Waves on the Ocean," written with Dean Dillon, is a wedding of Texas country and reggae that works. The cover of Todd Snider's "Train Song" is deep enough to actually replace the original. The set closes with William M. Golden's "Soul of Man." Sometimes Keen performs it live sans microphone. Maines' convinced him to record it, and his restrained production, populated by bass, banjos, accordion, mandolins, guitars, and staggered, chorus-like backing voices, shimmers under Keen's grainy baritone delivery, sending the album off with a reverent whisper. Ready for Confetti is, without question, Keen's most inspired and focused project in nearly 20 years.

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