Robert Earl Keen
Farm Fresh Onions
First Appeared at The Music Box, November 2003, Volume 10, #11
Written by John Metzger
Having a nearly perfect cover of James McMurtry’s Out Here in the Middle classified as the finest song on an album would be quite an accomplishment for most performers. For Texas troubadour Robert Earl Keen, however, that statement should come as a puzzling disappointment, yet this is exactly what happens on his recent effort Farm Fresh Onions. In crafting the collection, Keen employed his regular touring band in order to give the song cycle the same energy and intensity as his live performances, and for a moment, it works. Furnace Fan finds an earthy, Dylan-esque groove; All I Have Is Today is jangly roots-rock; and on Train Trek, the ensemble chugs along like a Texas incarnation of Dire Straits.
Indeed, there’s a loose air to the material, and for the first time in his career, Keen sounds truly liberated in the studio. Things begin to sour, however, when the title track spins out of control, sounding more akin to Phish’s goofy antics than something from one of America’s great songwriters. This notion continues on the funky Floppy Shoes and the Creole-twisted Gone On, and things don’t get much better with the rather straight-forward So Sorry Blues and the misfiring psychedelic rocker Beats the Devil. While these tunes undoubtedly fare better in concert where the alcohol and other intoxicants flow a little more freely — and judgments become impaired — here, they simply bring the proceedings to a screeching halt, and as Keen loses his focus, the album loses direction.
The conclusion of Farm Fresh Onions is decidedly better. The ballad These Years is full of reflective beauty; Famous Words is a somber excursion that feels like a long lost tune from Townes Van Zandt; and Let the Music Play is one those subtle anthems that have become Keen’s bread and butter. While these songs help salvage what’s left of the album, it’s too little, too late, and when he follows up several minutes of silence with more corny mayhem from the title track, one knows that Farm Fresh Onions isn’t destined to be remembered as one of Keen’s better outings.
Farm Fresh Onions is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2003 The Music Box