Listening to Tommy Keene thirty years after he emerged from the Washington, DC post-everything anti-scene, he remains a part of a continuum that included Marshall Crenshaw and Freedy Johnston and not a member of the Power Pop scene that embraced him as one of its own. Neither side is a put down in my book, I’ll take my guitars jangly and my Alex’s Chilton, no doubt. But for Keene it means that he never quite performs genre exercises, the entire catalog as one long unwavering song doesn’t quite grasp what the man has been doing. His songs are too unique to all sound the same.
2015’s Laugh In The Dark is his fourth release of the decade, which includes another album of new material, a terrific retrospective and a covers album (check out his “Catch The Wind” -the guitars are great though the vocal a touch less sincere -thank god) but the newbie is the best of the lot.
It’s not true Keene hasn’t improved over the years, Laugh In The Dark has all the assurance and ease only time can you provide you, it is zen like in its assuredness, sublime in its sturdiness, gorgeous, tuneful, genre specific and yet over and above that free of form over content. It’s as though Tommy would rather eat glass than be self-indulgent. The guitar solo on “I Want It To Be Over Now” is so lovely you want to kick Keene for not giving us more, and hand it to Glide writer Doug Collette (here) for noting that the lack of extended solos allows him to sidestep predictability. Personally, I’d prefer predictability. “All The Lights Are Alive” has a superb little solo and you just wish it went on further. Perhaps a live album is in order.
Laugh In The Dark reaches its height early on the electric thriller “Last Of The Twilight Girls” -another song where his voice pushes from behind and the guitar from in front. It’s not that the production buries his vocals, it is that it is only one voice with layered guitars, the guitars are so unique they are the center of your ears, a pity because as he once noted himself, he has a great voice for what it sings: all youthful earnestness and undertow.
As a lyricist Keene is world class, try “Alone In These Modern Times” or if you wanna go further afield search out “Kill Your Sons”. He might eschew metaphor for clearheadedness, but they signify and they sound great when sung. Love songs sure, but also troubled emotions and life in motion, families being unhappy in their own singular ways. “I can’t go back to pins and needles…” he sings. Exactly.
All of this is true but none of it is the problem with Keene. The problem is that it’s antithetical for popular music to be unpopular. Music written to catch the ear, to be sung along with, to be embraced by a large audience misses a dimension when it isn’t. If you want to be, say, Sunn O))), it will be what it is, but if you want to be Tommy Keene you should sell boatloads in or out of season.
I didn’t think The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face” was great till it became a hit, I thought it was probably the least of his three singles this year, but selling a million copies improved it in my ear. It is in the nature of pop to be a hugely shared experience, when it is well know, when it’s a hit, it is shared. And as a pop person, when I discuss The Weeknd with civilians, I enjoy their pleasure in it. I enjoy that me and so many other people knowing it, like some form of “let the force be with you” by hearing it together we improve the song and we change the way in which it is heard: we affect it. I need this in Keene and not just Keene, in Marshall Crenshaw’s EP In Segments, and many others, Apples In Stereo, whatever, they loosen their grip when they aren’t heard by a million people, they improve with a huge audience.
It is hard to be particularly negative about Keene because, yes, great songs, terrific voice, beautiful guitars, lyrics: a long term artist with more than enough integrity and skill to last a lifetime. But lemme tell ya something, kids: I want more solos (I wouldn’t mind an instrumental album) and I want many more people to listen. Still, I’ll take what I get
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an antidote to toxic male supremacy
“Perhaps a live album is in order.” He has one., called Showtunes, releasted about 10 years ago.
It was also released.
Thank you -IL