Robert Earl Keen: Farm Fresh Onions

Robert Earl Keen
Farm Fresh Onions

Don’t get me wrong: I love this record. I understand this record. I feel like Robert Earl Keen and I could sit down and eliminate some beers together down in a bar in College Station, Texas, and shoot the shit about life and the universe and stuff. His voice and his songs invite that sort of vision. You just wanna get to know a guy who writes an entire country song about how hot it is in Arizona, and another one about how the universe is some sort of cosmic onion.

But I’m not sure I can recommend this album to you, because I don’t know you. Farm Fresh Onions is the kind of record that I’d always be telling people to listen to where they’d be like “Uh, dude, I just couldn’t get into this” or “The lyrics don’t really match with the music” or “Screw this psychedelic country crap, I only like Basement Jaxx and the Beatles.” So consider this your warning: This might be the best album that you (or your friends) will just never understand this year.

Keen’s been weird for years. He and his old college buddy Lyle Lovett must have been on some powerful stuff back in the days, because they’ve both carved out a place in the Country With A Twist hall of fame — but, where Lovett has had the more glamorous career, Keen has built a quiet rep as the superior songwriter, a kind of underground cult hero to rebellious Texans like his homey Guy Clark and younger dudes like Charlie and Bruce Robison. Keen is a well-kept secret outside of the Lone Star State and some nerdy-ass critics in other places.

But this record bids fair to break him a little wider, a little weirder, and much higher-profile than he’s ever been before. His current band has been together for quite a while now, and they are a rockin’ little unit indeed. The sound is Flatland Country, but with added picante sauce on each one: Rich Brotherton’s wah-wah apocalypse on the title track calls up the 13th Floor Elevators, Tom van Schaik’s drumming chugs “Train Trek” with insane purpose towards its inevitable crackup, and “Let the Music Play” is a real old-fashioned weeper in sound only, all acoustic strum and deep bottom from Bill Whitbeck and poignant steel guitar sweeps from Marty Muse . (As for the lyrics, I’ll get to them in a second.) It’s a great-sounding record, with a different attack (blues! folk! cajun! funk!) on each track. If this is alternative country, then alternative country has been freed of its shackles and walks amongst us like a man, like a natural man.

Okay, I can’t wait any longer to talk about the lyrics. Robert Earl isn’t what you’d call a polished singer, or one with a stunning voice, but he knows how to write for what he’s got, and said writing is just some flat-out Texas strangeness. “Let the Music Play”, which I started to talk about earlier, is the archetypal R.E.K. song; at first, like I said before, it sounds like a country radio tune, with all that great steel work and the doubled-up acoustic guitar bedrock, and Keen murmuring some country radio clichés to draw us in: “Put the horses in the stable / Load the mules on the train / Set your pistols on the table / Leave the dogs out in the rain”. But as the song continues, you realize that this section is about someone who’s about to be visited by some very bad people and suffer some very bad consequences: “Take the money that they gave you / Hide it in a mason jar / Ain’t nobody left can save you / It don’t matter where you are”. Whatever is happening here, it’s all bad, and it gets worse — I’m not sure whether all the people in these songs are only one person or a succession of hard-luckers, but hearing things like “You know you’re shaking hands with Satan / When your mouth is running dry” and the verses about the guy who looks like Luke the Drifter and burns down an entire town will discomfit you incredibly and make you smile at the same time.

The song “Farm Fresh Onions” doesn’t really belong to any existing genre, Pixies guitar and garage rock and new wave and Keen drawling out his free associations in boho-rap style, all of which being very appropriate for a song that takes onion-appreciation to a whole new level: “People movin’ everywhere / Planes are fallin’ from the air / Take a good look in the mirror / The mirror on the wall / Overwhelmin’ to the mind / Too confined but still inclined / To stay the course until I find / The onion in us all”. It even has a funky breakdown! I love songs with funky breakdowns! Someone sample this part immediately! By the end of the thing, you realize that you don’t know what the hell he’s talking about, and how these alleged onions could represent all the things he ascribes to them, and how you don’t care because it sounds like a band having more fun than you — it may be complicated fun, but it’s fun nonetheless.

There’s simple-fun stuff too, though, thank god. “Floppy Shoes” is just a tune about how road trips rule, and is about that ambitious: “Give me a thousand miles of highway / Tie-dyed shirts and floppy shoes / You be Wonder Woman, I’ll be Rocket Man / Just one kiss will light the fuse”. “So Sorry Blues” busts off some funny-but-awful jokes about being a lazy bastard, all to a minimalist B.B. King groove: “I gotta rest myself now pretty baby / I could hyperventilate / Yes I tried to give up smoking / But smoking’s just too great / I planned to quit procrastinating / Then decided I should wait”. The good humor in “Gone On” and the cover of James McMurtry’s “Out Here in the Middle” are infectious, especially when you think about these songs later and realize that you’ve been had, that there’s serious stuff lurking under the calm surface.

And then there are ominous haunting spooky songs that actually sound that way. “These Years” is a mournful semi-Celtic downer about lost opportunities and wasted lives, a folk song with no emotional release whatsoever. “Famous Words” is a chilling skeletal piece focused on the people who get left behind when their family members disappear, slow and unforgiving like the way your mind works at 3 a.m. And the tension in “Train Trek”, which reveals itself to be about a train wreck and a ghost story, is palpable and icky and lovely. Songs like these would be unbearable without the goofy stuff, the goofy stuff would be self-indulgent without the soul-shredders, and all of them are balanced out by “All I Have Is Today”, which is the single most Zen country song of all time and defies analysis the way neo-Texan Yao Ming will deny people trying to come into the paint this year.

If this doesn’t pull people into the weird wild woolly world of Robert Earl Keen, nothing ever will. Those of us who are then on the inside will laugh at you poor fools on the outside, watching you waste your lives listening to other music and wondering what you’re missing. So yeah, if you’re allergic to stuff you don’t quite understand at first, you better not try this one. I guess I’ll have to only conditionally recommend this record to those of you who can handle getting your brains turned inside-out every once in a while.

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