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Robert Earl Keen
What I Really Mean
Koch Records Nashville

It has finally happened. As college roommates, Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen would sit on the porch writing songs and playing songs and, I'm certain, drinking some Lonestars. The careers of the two friends have always run roughly parallel in a lot of ways, but Keen always seemed just a touch behind Lovett. I'm happy to report that REK has stepped it up on his new record, and has not only matched Lovett, but finally and clearly surpassed him. Keen is ahead in my imaginary race!

The songs on What I Really Mean are far from the beer drinking anthems of "The Road Goes On Forever", thankfully, and show real growth in the songwriting prowess of REK, a progress that was evidently on its way on his last outing Farm Fresh Onions. "For Love" kicks the album off in high, twangy guitar style, melding country and rock in that way that only REK can. Rich Brotherton supplies some amazing lead lines, and the steel guitars lift the song into country music nirvana. The mandolins come out on "Mr. Wolf and Mamabear" to accompany an intricate and clever story about an animal town. Not really the kind of song you'd play for a child, but an interesting way to tell a story. The title track is filled with empathy and longing. It is a beautiful song, possibly one of Keen's finest and most heartfelt songs ever. I could do without the soprano saxophone, but the strength of the song makes even that bearable. Honky tonk was never more alive than in the story of "The Great Hank" - A hazy downbeat country tune that accompanies a story that could only spring forth from the mind of Keen. Breaking out more of the folky-bluegrass sound on "Long Chain", Keen tells the kind of dark story that makes truly great country music stand out from the crowd.

"The Travelling Storm" features Northumbrian small pipes that create an amazing mood of the old country, and accompany a tale that would be right on par with the classic "Whiskey In The Jar". It is a moody tale of betrayal and adventure, filled with some of Keen's finest poetry: "Pity not the weary traveler/ he lives in his mind/ he is friend of wind and weather/ and from fire is born/ Pity then the cool betrayer/ waiting patiently/ no precaution made will save him/ from the traveling storm." The dark mood continues unabated on "A Border Tragedy", but the song is filled with drunken Mariachi trumpets that attempt to lighten the mood. Thrown in for good measure and to fulfill the mood are a verse of "The Streets Of Laredo" and a Mexican chorus. Rolling the album up with some fine fingerpicking and a leaving story is the beautiful, light sounding "Ride".

The stories on What I Really Mean make the meat of the record, and are what set REK ahead of LL. But the musicianship is without equal, and there is more country here than you are likely to hear in the near future. If you are looking for the party songs that Keen has written in the past, you won't find them here. What you will find is a collection of songs filled with emotion, depth, strength, and unique character. This is what makes music worth hearing.

-Embo Blake

Track Listing:
1. For Love
2. Mr. Wolf And Mamabear
3. What I Really Mean
4. The Great Hank
5. The Wild Ones
6. Long Chain
7. Broken End Of Love
8. The Dark Side Of The World
9. The Travelling Storm
10. A Border Tragedy
11. Ride

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