Robert Earl Keen

The Rose Hotel

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The Rose Hotel is Texas songwriter Robert Earl Keen's first studio album since 2005's What I Really Mean; he released Live at the Ryman in 2006. In other words, it's been a while. Keen enlisted now-legendary fellow Texan Lloyd Maines to produce him this time out, and that was a solid decision -- Maines knows how to produce guitar sounds, acoustic, electric, pedal- and lap-steel, mandolins and banjos, as well as fiddles, and this set is full of them. Maines plays more than a few of those guitars himself. Marty Muse handled the pedal steel duties, longtime mate Rich Brotheron plays a slew of stringed instruments, and former Bad Livers member Danny Barnes handles banjo duties. The material ranges from the title track, which is one of his spun-out story tunes that looks at a pair of lovers who can never quite connect as they think they're meant to, fueled by a shuffling rhythm, mandolins, Bukka Allen's accordion, and some electric guitars for support. The chorus "Sometimes you run, sometimes you stall, sometimes you don't get up at all/Sometimes you run, sometimes you fall" is catchy, and with a whining steel guitar, makes for another notch in his trademark tunes belt. The cover of Townes Van Zandt's "Flying Shoes" is rocked up a bit, with a bassline that sounds like it would be more at home on a Brian Setzer Orchestra record than this one. And rock plays a real role here as it has on most of Keen's records for the past decade. "Throwin' Rocks" may have banjos and steel guitars, but it's pure Texas shuffle and boogie. "10,0000 Chinese Walk into a Bar" features guest vocalist Billy Bob Thornton on lead and harmony vocals in a duet with Keen on one of his trademark joke numbers. Greg Brown appears in the same capacity on "Laughing River," a song he contributed to the set which is, along with the title track, one of the album's clear standouts. An acoustic road song, it is fueled by an upright bass, a banjo, and a harmonica, and the two men singing together sounds backporch and natural. "On and On," is loaded with '70s-style country phase shifters on the steel and electric guitars, and feels out of time and space. "Village Inn" is another displaced travel number, a type of song that's a clear strength in Keen's stable, and this one measures up.

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