More than any of his recent albums, Farm Fresh Onions represents the new Robert Earl Keen. The meticulously detailed Texana is gone and the vibrant character portraits once so easily recognizable and realistically drawn are less fleshed out and less vivid and lifelike. With only a few exceptions, the result is that instead of whole songs that stick in the mind, only a line here and a chorus there hooks and holds.
The press certainly hasn't been able to find much common ground on the album. One writer claims the opening track, "Furnace Fan," is "Dylanish." Hmmm. When's the last time Dylan rhymed "hi, I'm Uncle Joe" with "chicken strips, ranch style dip, and wings from Buffalo"? Numerous critics complain that the album starts and finishes well, but that the middle is stylistically unfocused and contains casual, careless songwriting that is beneath Keen standards. On the other hand, by avoiding the joke songs and his usual trademark folksy ease, one highly respected scribe sees Keen as taking the artistic high road, refusing to pander to his audience. He even goes so far as to describe Keen as "renewed." (The underlying implication is that Farm Fresh Onions represents Keen's escape from the limiting expectations of his core fan base.) Another writer probably most accurately describes the situation by saying that while he likes Keen's album, he feels sure it will be "misunderstood" and that he will spend an inordinate amount of time explaining why.
Well, here's what I think I understand. The high point of the album is the excellence Keen's band displays in traversing numerous style changes, flitting effortlessly from folk to funk and back. Recorded with his regular road gang plus a few Austin ringers, tracks like "Train Trek" and "Beats the Devil" find producer-guitarist Rich Brotherton kicking serious ass and Marty Muse playing some smooth, tasteful steel guitar. And songs like "Famous Words" and "Let the Music Play" boast lyrics as sophisticated as any Keen has ever put to paper.
Robert Earl Keen
Track sequencing and flow are a problem, however. The middle part of the album wrestles with the rest and, even after repeated listening, the sum of the parts just doesn't seem to make a whole. This doesn't make Farm Fresh Onions a bad album -- just one that I don't expect to be in my heavy rotation. It just doesn't grab me the way most of Keen's work has.
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You couldn't call Farm Fresh Onions forgettable, exactly, but it's not particularly memorable, either. Some of Keen's work is absolutely indispensable, crucial. This is more along the lines of simply serviceable.