Robert Earl Keen

The Rose Hotel – 2009 (Lost Highway)

Reviewed by Robert Wooldridge

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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.