ROBERT EARL KEEN/R.B. MORRIS

As his recent debut on Arista Austin, Picnic, suggests, Texan Robert Earl Keen never really had a chance in Nashville: his own voice is too awkward, and his lyrics are too dark and twisted for some toothy Opry singer to spit out, much less score a hit with. Produced by John Keane (who’s twirled knobs for R.E.M., the Cowboy Junkies, and the Indigo Girls), the new album frames his narratives with beautifully crafted melodies and a lean but muscular instrumentation that veers closer to folk rock than anything he’s recorded over the last decade. But the stories–those terse, tragicomic stories–remain the same. The album’s opener, “Undone,” pokes a little fun at the cyclical, oppressive misery and bad luck of a two-bit loser looking everywhere for excuses: “Dead end jobs payment plans / Broke down trucks welfare checks / Child support and back-seat sex / You’d kill yourself but you hocked your gun / You built a noose but it come undone.” And the gentler “Then Came Lo Mein,” a duet with Margo Timmins, uses an explosive meal at a Chinese restaurant to symbolize the turning point in a relationship: “But I held your hand ’til you calmed down again / And picked out the rice in your hair.” Keen’s terrific live, even if his wordy banter can get a bit too clever. Opener R.B. Morris started out as a poet, and his verbal economy shows on his stunning debut, …Take That Ride… (Oh Boy). Though the album sometimes sounds like a roots-rock sampler–there’s the Nick Lowe-ish stomp of “World Owes Me,” the Irish strains of “Ridin’ With O’Hanlon,” the gospel of “Glory Dreams,” the blues rock of “Take Time to Love”–Morris’s expressive, rough-hewn vocals tie the material together well enough. In blustery storytelling and sensitive rumination, his lyrics are consistently thoughtful and vivid; the title track, for example, explores the hazy border between living a full life and dying for it, citing James Agee and Hank Williams as artists who ultimately perished for their work. And if the proceedings occasionally get a bit too erudite, Morris’s super band, which features Kenny Vaughan on lead guitar, balances the brains with brawn. Thursday, August 28, 9 PM, FitzGerald’s, 6615 Roosevelt, Berwyn; 708-788-2118. Keen also opens for Jimmy Vaughan on Wednesday at 9 PM, House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn; 312-527-2583 or 312-923-2000. PETER MARGASAK

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Robert Earl Keen photo by Glen Rose/ R.B. Morris photo uncredited.