Robert Earl Keen
It's funny to realize that when Robert Earl Keen sings, "We were at the Rhythm Room in Scottsdale, Arizona/It was in the summertime/It must have been '02," on the opening verse of "Furnace Fan," he's referencing last year, not the early 1900s. In the old-timey atmosphere of ringing acoustic guitars and pedal steel, the lyrics sound somehow askew. Yet that's exactly what modern-day country music is about -- the forced melding of traditional and modern, the bizarre juxtaposition of a wandering cowboy in an oversized city.
That sentiment dominates most of Farm Fresh Onions, Keen's latest release. "I woke up in a strange place/By a 40-acre parking lot," he croons on "All I Have Is Today." On the next track, a cover of James McMurtry's "Out Here in the Middle," Keen summons up images of "amber waves of grain and bathtub speed" alongside Starbucks franchises and visions of Elvis. It's tough being an anachronism, Keen seems to say. Listening to Farm Fresh Onions, I'm tempted to reply that it must be tough being Robert Earl Keen.
The perennial underdog of the alternative-country movement, Keen has always hovered a few steps shy of real success. A musician's musician, he counts Nanci Griffith as a close friend and moved to Nashville in time to see pals k.d. lang and Lyle Lovett (with whom Keen penned "This Old Porch") vault to stardom. After returning to his native Texas, Keen's been linked with such movers and shakers as Gurf Morlix (who went on to produce Lucinda Williams' Car Wheels on a Gravel Road), Gillian Welch, and the Cowboy Junkies' Margo Timmons; he cut records for indies Sugar Hill and Rosetta, landed on Arista Records in the late '90s, and released one album -- 2000's superlative Gravitational Forces -- on the career-making Lost Highway label. But despite all the recording, touring, and critical acclaim, Keen never really reached the big time.
To his own credit, Keen lets any envy roll away like water off a duck's back. On this, his 10th record, he focuses on his own work, cranking out a dozen diverse tracks that alternate between the relentless ("Beats the Devil"), the ridiculous ("Floppy Shoes"), the anthemic ("Let the Music Play"), and the brokenhearted ("These Years"). As solid a talent as any of his contemporaries, Keen seems content to let Farm Fresh Onions boil slowly on a back burner as he hones his craft on his own schedule, granting a taste to any listeners who might happen to stop in. -- Andria Lisle
Robert Earl Keen performs at the New Daisy Theatre on Thursday, November 13th.
Things can only go north from the attendance at Oneida's first Memphis gig in 1997. It was a goose egg. Since that humbling moment, an incessant touring schedule has allowed the spectacle of Memphis warming up to a still-semi-obscure band -- something that Memphis doesn't always do. A scorching live show always helps the affair, and Oneida rarely fails to deliver the goods.
The band's sixth album, Secret Wars, takes its predecessor, Each One, Teach One (childhood memories of poorly produced TV commercials and sterile public-library water fountains flood my head whenever that album title pops up), down a half-notch, providing a little more breathing room after that double-CD behemoth of noisy annihilation.
Secret Wars is more accessible, much prettier. The pensive "Wild Horses" (an original -- this is not a band served well with your bar-and-grill chicken strips) and the album's kickoff, "Treasure Plane," are dreamy heads-down pop. Some recent bio material stated that the band wished more writers would compare them to the Incredible String Band, Moondog, or ESG and cease with the bad rock journalism of pointlessly name-dropping everything from the MC5 to Can to (not kidding, well, I'm not kidding) Lennox Lewis. While the Krautrock (mainly Can and Neu!) references will always follow Oneida (for good reason), I have never heard a hint of ESG or the MC5 on an Oneida record, but the Incredible String Band do get a wink or two on Secret Wars. The ethno-folk-hobble of "The Last Act Every Time" and "The Winter Shaker" do sort of sound like a technology-forward Incredible String Band, and I don't mean "ethno" in an opportunistic David Byrne/Paul Simon/Sting kinda way.
Any or all Oneida albums are good introductions to what this band does, so Secret Wars just betters the odds in case you approach the merch table blindfolded. And like the rest of the discography, it can rock as hard as the live show if the listener is in the mood. That is no license to miss this week's local show, however. -- Andrew Earles
Oneida performs at the Hi-Tone CafÇ Friday, November 14th, with Viva L'American Death Ray Music.
On their full-length debut, Logic Will Break Your Heart, the Stills wear their influences on their sleeves, finding inspiration in the rock-history moment when punk mutated into new wave, when guitars gave way to synths and mohawks went asymmetrical. "Changes Are No Good," a standout track, builds off a guitar line on loan from New Order; "Lola Stars and Stripes" is interrupted by bursts of bright guitar arpeggios Ö la early U2; and the keyboards on "Love and Death" are practically quoted from Listen Like Thieves-era INXS.
Other bands have marked this territory before, most notably Interpol, who tried to resurrect Joy Division last year with matching suits, iron-on angst, and dumb-ass lyrics. But the Stills' influences go beyond the obvious sources. For example, with its jangly guitar and steady, upright drums, the intro to "Ready for It" could be an outtake from REM's Reckoning, then it evolves into a chorus reminiscent of Starfish-era Church.
This mix and match of sources makes Logic immediately accessible and familiar while avoiding mere mimicry. But the transparency of these influences reveals a fledgling band still trying to grasp its strengths and weaknesses and emphasizing sound over songwriting. Hopefully, on their follow-up, they'll sound more like the Stills than any other group. -- Stephen Deusner