Record Review 

In the '80s while attending Texas A&M, Robert Earl Keen used to sit on his porch and jam away into the sultry twilight with neighbor Lyle Lovett. He followed Lovett to Nashville, but soon returned to Austin, where he's remained since.

His ninth studio effort continues a string of strong releases since leaving Arista. Keen supplies his songs with the intuitive pace and rich detail of a fine storyteller. He also injects them with a wry humor, as on the animal farm noir of "Mr. Wolf and Mamabear" - a kind of quadrupedal Bonnie and Clyde. On "The Great Hank," Keen recalls seeing Hank Williams in drag ("from his rose red lips to his rhinestoned hips"), a dream that takes several more turns, yet captures a special mood despite its fantastical setup. As with the songs of Townes Van Zandt, there is a restless quality to Keen's characters, fueled by an inextinguishable hope or longing. Musically, Keen has a twangy Texas country sound with a touch of bluegrass and folk around the edges, though he's comfortable enough to color outside those lines as on the Celtic-tinged "The Traveling Storm" or the Tex-Mex blues of "A Border Tragedy." A fine release by an enduring if underrated artist.

Robert Earl Keen plays the Variety Playhouse Thurs., May 19. 8 p.m. $22.50. 404-524-7354.


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