Record Review 

Armed with Guy Clark's rich storytelling ability and Lyle Lovett's weird sense of humor, Robert Earl Keen has created a niche for himself best described as hipneck-country. His tenth CD, Farm Fresh Onions, has been heralded as his best work to date, but what sounds like cohesiveness and maturity to many is actually just familiarity.

Keen (re)covers the terrain of traveling, loving and food, always with a touch of outlaw panache. His lyrics still show sparks of greatness. Nobody else would think to describe the Arizona heat as a furnace fan, or speak of the Zen-like quality of onions. But, even so, he takes us to places he's taken us before.

Musically, Keen proves to be even less imaginative. "All I Have Is Today" and "Beats the Devil" borrow heavily from earlier Keen work. On others, Keen seems to have written the words and attached the first simple melody that came into his head. It says a lot that the most musically challenging song is his cover of James McMurtry's "Out Here in the Middle." Keen has a knack for covering great, underappreciated artists, but has covered McMurtry's "Levelland" on his Picnic album, so even that idea is recycled.

His hardcore outtake versions of the title track are fun, but, again, he already did that on 1998's Walking Distance. Keen with no new ideas still sounds better than most people on the radio, but for him the bar is held higher, and Farm Fresh Onions can't clear it.

Robert Earl Keen plays the Variety Playhouse, Sat., Feb. 14. $20.


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