With a retrospective album, Tommy Keene finds acclaim, if not success

[20 July 2010]

By Timothy Finn

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

The list of bands or songwriters who deserve to be more famous and successful is unofficial and subjective, but it is also long and illustrious.

Tommy Keene deserves to be on that list. Maybe not in the Top 10, with people like Alex Chilton (one of Keene’s heroes) or Richard Thompson or bands like the Pixies or the Go-Betweens.

But because of his knack for writing enduring pop songs with sweet melodies and a rock crunch, Keene deserves to be as well-known as some of his contemporaries or the bands and songwriters he influenced, such as Paul Westerberg or Matthew Sweet.

Maybe his time has finally come.

Last week, Second Motion Records released “Tommy Keene You Hear Me: A Retrospective 1983-2009.” Don’t let the weak pun in its title dissuade you. The two-disc, 41-track retrospective is loaded with songs, including some unreleased tracks, that showcase Keene’s bright and keen sense of pop and rock, the kind that evokes the sounds of the early Beatles, the early Who and the Raspberries.

Keene flirted with big-label success in the mid-1980s, when he released two albums on Geffen Records, “Songs From the Film” and “Based on Happy Times,” and earned some face time on MTV, back when it played music videos and showcased performers like him.

He would not seal a deal with big-time success, yet since the late 1980s, Keene has continued to write songs and record albums without suffering a depletion in quality or inspiration. He spoke recently about a career that has delivered an abundance of critical acclaim but scant commercial success.

Q. How involved were you in the process of compiling this retrospective?

A. I was very involved. I’d known for a couple of years we were going to do this. I wanted an overview of my career that I was happy with, so we went through about 30 drafts.

Q. Inevitably the term “power pop” comes up in descriptions of your music. Was that a blessing or a curse?

A. Kind of both. But at the end of the day, I accept it. If your fans are geeky power-pop fans, you embrace them. I think I’ve gotten a little too much of that, though.

I love great power pop — the Who, Cheap Trick. My friend Bob Pollard of Guided by Voices loves power pop. Some Elvis Costello is power pop. I don’t branch out into other styles like Elvis does, but I do think some of my work has more to it.

Q. Do you listen to your own music?

A. I’m my own biggest fan and worst critic. I can still pick out what’s wrong and condemn it or let everything go and enjoy it as a fan. I pull out a record once or twice a year and listen to it. It can be a little weird. I had to do a lot of listening for this project.

Q. What’s your perspective on your career now: lots of critical acclaim but nothing more than cult status?

A. I have a very ambiguous view of how others see my career. Any time I read about me and my music it’s usually really good and I think, “Why didn’t I make it?” I wonder, “Are those 4,000 people wrong?” But that’s life.

It’s hard for me to take it all in, and, not to be cliche, but it’s luck and timing. To be realistic, I never expected to be a huge star or performer, like Tom Petty or Springsteen. I never saw it. I always just hoped I could continue to make records and be successful enough that it made sense to do so. But all the time I’d see bands or artists who were pretty awful and really successful and I’d think, “I should at least sell a quarter of what they sell.”

Q. If you had a choice, would you rather be known strictly for one or two singles or do it the way you’ve done it?

A. Well, take the Gin Blossoms, who used to be friends of mine, kind of. The guy who wrote the three songs that got them a deal, they fired him and he ended up killing himself. But they’re still out there making lots of money playing his three songs. I don’t think they are critically acclaimed or ever were, but it’s a career. I don’t know ... you can’t choose.

Q. You were at the Alex Chilton panel discussion at South by Southwest in March. Talk about his influence on you.

A. I’d heard of Big Star in the 1970s. I remember hearing a song on the radio and not being able to find it. In 1978, a friend asked if I’d heard this band that had Alex Chilton in it, the guy from the Box Tops. He made a cassette of three of their albums, and I went crazy, like, “Where has this been?” The guitar playing influenced me tremendously. It did what I’d wanted to do: combine George Harrison with Keith Richards and Pete Townshend ...

Then cut to the 1980s. I got a record by him, “Alex Chilton Live in London.” It included the song “Hey Little Child,” that had this cool throw-away beat, like “Satisfaction.” We started doing it live and people went nuts. So we recorded it.

I remember a guy at the label, after the EP sold well, took Alex out to dinner and gave him a royalty check for $280. He said it was the only time anyone had ever paid him for recording one of his songs.

Q. Talk about working with Bob Pollard and Paul Westerberg.

A. They are very different. Bob is very gregarious, outgoing. Paul is very introspective and kind of quiet, unless intoxicated.

The Paul thing goes way back. I almost signed a deal with Twin/Tone Records in 1982. We had a mutual friend who became our go-between.

The first time I played Minneapolis he came out and then sort of became my champion.

I went on tour with them in 1989 for about a dozen shows of the “Don’t Tell a Soul” tour. Then I played with his band after he couldn’t find a guitar player. It was strange. He’d stopped drinking by then.

Bob is the opposite. Bob likes to sit around and bond and drink and talk music.

Q. Who impresses you as a songwriter these days?

A. A few people impress me. The guy from the New Pornographers (Carl Newman) is very clever. His hooks, when they’re good, they’re fantastic.

But I don’t really have to look for new music. Pollard makes a record every month and sends me one. And I have to say, I always find something on it I think is amazing.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/128489-with-a-retrospective-album-tommy-keene-finds-acclaim-if-not-success/