[8 September 2011]
As painful as it may now be for his loyal and unjustifiably small fan base to recall, there was once a time when a new Tommy Keene album every two or three years was not a strict guarantee. Back during the now-unimaginable time when an actual major label (Geffen) spent money and resources on Keene, an artist whose name is now destined to forever be accompanied by phrases like “criminally underrated”, “cult figure” or “American power pop icon”, records like Songs From The Film (1986) and Based On Happy Times (1989) were subjected to erratic releasing strategies as the bigwigs figured out how to mold and market an act who was as unglamorous as he was talented. Worse yet were the years that immediately followed his exit from Geffen, which resulted in a series of EPs and album releases culled from various, and often overlapping, sources that has left the early ‘90s portion of his discography looking like a labyrinthine mess.
Thankfully, following a relatively stable second half of the 90s (Ten Years After from 1996, was Keene’s first proper record of new material since the ‘80s, and Isolation Party followed dutifully in 1998), 2002’s The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down kick-started a steady release schedule that saw the 2004 oddities collection Drowning followed by Crashing The Ether in 2006, In The Late Bright in 2009 and now the new Behind The Parade. And really, if any artist should be required to release albums with this kind of clockwork consistency, it is Keene, a musician whose albums feel, almost unfailingly, like visits from an old friend that you lament never keeping as much in touch with anymore as you would like. Tommy Keene makes comfort music, in other words, and if this sounds far less exciting to you than an Odd Future provocation or a Lady Gaga pose, Behind The Parade offers 40 more minutes worth of testimony to the continued value of exquisite craftsmanship of even the most familiar traditions.
Among the things that Behind The Parade reminds us of (and if you are new to Keene and daunted by his back catalog, last year’s career-spanning, 41 track Tommy Keene You Hear Me: A Retrospective will do a decent job of catching you up) is that while there are literally hundreds of bands currently working in Tommy Keene’s style of jangly, uncluttered guitar pop, Keene is properly considered one of the form’s true masters for good reason. For one, he has what may as well be the perfect “power pop” voice, nasal and inarticulate enough to front any teenage garage band, yet warmly plaintive and wistfully melancholic, a perfect aural evocation of the point at which romantic longing pierces the hopeful veneer of adolescent idealism. As a lyricist, too, Keene has a way of constructing phrases that, laid out on paper, would undoubtedly read as mundane, but take on an inexplicable, magical resonance when heard amidst the melodic chime and sway of the music; hear on Behind The Parade how his voice transforms words as unremarkable as “you’re all alone in this town”, “everybody has lost a kiss”, “she got her kicks right down on the street”, “wake me up when we get to Idlewild” and “how does it feel to feel this way?” into something resembling poetry.
Not all of Keene’s virtues are so conventional, however. In a genre that demands very little sonic flash and thus frequently finds itself locked into a by-the-book musical conservatism, Behind The Parade continues to further put Keene’s impressive strengths as a guitar player on display. Without ever being ostentatious, he manages to slip a ripping guitar solo into a good half of the songs here, and while a listener not typically attuned to such things could easily let these go by unnoticed, they undoubtedly go a long way in explaining why Keene’s music never feels at all slavish. But really, what Keene does best in his playing is execute the power pop formula with a kind of elemental understanding of what makes it work, with the guitars on Behind The Parade basically alternating between a Raspberries-style crunch or a Byrds-like ringing, occasionally within the same song. Aside from some “Penny Lane” horns on “Deep Six Saturday” and some wobbly synths taking the place of a lead guitar on “Factory Town” and, more covertly, aiding the relative expansiveness of “His Mother’s Son”, this is very nearly a resolutely guitar record. In fact, the only genuinely experimental moment on Behind The Parade is also the only place where it truly steps wrong, with the strange quasi New Age instrumental “La Castana” interrupting the album’s otherwise seamless flow at the halfway point.
For the most part, though, Behind The Parade is yet another impeccable Tommy Keene record. If there is nothing here to truly distinguish it from the rest of his catalog, a considerable part of the joy of listening to it is hearing one of the unacknowledged greats of American pop songwriting having reached a point in his career where his craft has been honed to perfection. Whether most of us know it or not, we are lucky to have him.