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What I Really Mean

Robert Earl Keen

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Album Review

Robert Earl Keen, Jr. has built a career out of making albums that straddle the line between the thoughtful and the comic, and twenty years into the game he isn't about to stop now — nor should he, since he's still quite good at it. What I Really Mean, Keen's ninth studio set, typically veers back and forth between compelling meditations on life and love (such as the sweeping album opener "For Love," the impassioned "The Wild Ones," and the lonesome travelogue of the title cut), and surreal comic vignettes which show that his sense of humor is getting a bit stranger with the passage of time. "The Great Hank" imagines meeting a risen Hank Williams as he performs in drag in Pennsylvania; "Mr. Wolf and Mamabear" takes an old fairy tale into wholly unexpected directions, and "A Border Tragedy" is easily the oddest of his many tunes about traveling through Mexico (with a beautiful but wildly incongruous cameo from Ray Price). If there's news here, it's that after years of being regarded as a songwriter who isn't much of a singer, Keen has been gaining an impressive new control of his instrument, and What I Really Mean features some of his most compelling performances to date, especially on a superb cover of Jimmie Driftwood's "Long Chain," and the production by longtime associate Rich Brotherton shows him off to fine advantage. In some respects, What I Really Mean is "another Robert Earl Keen album," but it's also another good one, and shows he's still one of the most viable voices in the Texas singer/songwriter community.

Biography

Born: 11 January 1956 in Houston, TX

Genre: Country

Years Active: '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s

Among the large contingent of talented songwriters who emerged in Texas in the 1980s and '90s, Robert Earl Keen struck an unusual balance between sensitive story-portraits ("Corpus Christi Bay") and raucous barroom fun ("That Buckin' Song"). These two song types in Keen's output were unified by a mordant sense of humor that strongly influenced the early practitioners of what would become known as alternative country music. Keen, the son of an oil executive father and an attorney mother, was a native...
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