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Robert Earl Keen

The Rose Hotel – 2009 (Lost Highway)

Reviewed by Robert Wooldridge

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CDs by Robert Earl Keen

With his first studio album in more than four years, Robert Earl Keen serves up his usual mix of poignant ballads and sardonic humor. The title track is a ballad of lost love in which a man goes to meet an estranged lover in hopes of reconciliation, only to find she had not waited for him ("He threw a nickel in the wishing well/crossed the street to The Rose Hotel/Got no answer when he rang the bell").

Laughing River , a duet with Greg Brown (who also wrote the song), is the tale of a career minor league baseball player coming to the realization that it's time to abandon his dream ("I'm trading in this old bat/For a fishing pole").

Keen's sense of humor is in full force on the politically incorrect 10,000 Chinese Walk Into A Bar ("And then there was this Irishman/Who, uh, stayed drunk all time/I'm sorry friend I screwed that up/I told you the punch line"), featuring Billy Bob Thornton on vocals. The closing Wireless In Heaven ponders the afterlife in the modern age ("Is there wireless in heaven? I just wanna know/Do I need a password to log in when I go?/And does Jesus have a website to send in my e-mail?/Is there wireless in heaven, or do I go to hell?"), and Keen gets a reality check when he thinks he's made a conquest in the cashier at a coffee house ("She says "it is an honor"/She knows who I am/Her grandpa plays the guitar and he's my biggest fan").

Other standout tracks are Something That I Do , a celebration of laziness ("I kinda like just/ Doin' nothing/ It's something that I do"), and The Man Behind The Drums , a salute to Levon Helm. Produced by Lloyd Maines, this is an impressive effort from one of the best singer/songwriters around.