New Album Review

88.1 WKNC Pick of the Week 11/12

Robert Earl Keen – The Rose Hotel
4 out of 5 stars
by Sweet Annie Rich

Robert Earl Keen has been a driving presence in Americana for the past 15 years, at the very least, and his latest offering “The Rose Hotel” only further cements his place in the alt-country pantheon.  While none of these songs are the next “The Road Goes On Forever,” it’s an album of solid Keen material that’s bound to become part of the drunken singalongs that are his live shows.

It’s certainly not a new outing for Keen, but at this point in his career straying too much from the beaten path would detract from his essence as an artist.  The title track is exactly what an opener should be – it’s catchy, mid-tempo, with an infinitely singable chorus.  But as always with a good Keen song there’s an undercurrent of sadness that keeps the twang authentic.

It’s this turn of phrase that keeps Keen fans coming back for more and makes even the most die-hard anti-country advocates stop and listen.  “Throwing Rocks” starts out like any other lazy good-time song but immediately turns on itself halfway through, going from rollicking love song to rolling story of revenge.  As such it’s a standout on a disc full of solid songs.

Keen pays tribute to his forebears appropriately, covering Townes Van Zandt’s “Flying Shoes” with a chunky bass line.  “The Man Behind the Drums” is a pure meta-country ode to Levon Helm.  It’s a refreshing sense of humility that Keen possesses in regard to these legends, as if he realizes that some put him on their level but knows in his heart of hearts that he can only look up to them.

Some songs don’t quite hit the emotional apex.  “Goodbye Cleveland” ought to be every bit the weeper, but something about the way Keen stretches out the words of the chorus just makes it another candidate for rowdy singing along, which is exactly what this song shouldn’t be.  Some songs are played for the laughs, which is always fun, but “10,000 Chinese Walk Into A Bar” still doesn’t seem to reach the funny bone quite like previous gut-busters (“The Great Hank” comes to mind).

As a whole, “The Rose Hotel” is fun, relaxed, and at turns surprising.  Keen’s attitude is best summed up in the song “Something I Do,” which with a chorus of “I kinda like just doing nothing, it’s something that I do,” encapsulates the easy and familiar feeling that fans have come to know and love.