[7 October 2013]
Covers albums. Many times artists release a covers album because they’ve run out of ideas of their own. Recording a collection of songs written by other people can be a way to circumvent that writer’s block and still release a “new” album. A less cynical view of covers albums is that they can be a way for the artist to reconnect with what made them want to be musicians in the first place and, in the process, reinvigorate themselves artistically. The best collections work in tandem: the song inspires the artist and the artist breathes new life into the song. At its essence, the covers album should be a tribute to the artist’s favorite musicians, a chance to record their versions of a bunch of songs they love. And what’s wrong with that? Absolutely nothing. That’s why power pop veteran Tommy Keene’s new covers-only album, Excitement at Your Feet is such a joy to listen to. From the headlong dive into the opening track to the closing guitar echo-howl of the last, there’s nothing half-hearted about this effort.
In a career that spans over three decades, Keene has done some well-received, some say definitive covers before. His version of “Kill Your Sons” is an early example, taking the song to more urgent level not even hinted at on Lou Reed’s original. Not to mention the fierce guitar overdrive of the Keene version. Another cover, of Alex Chilton’s “Hey, Little Child”, is more crisp, energetic, and focused than the original (granted, Chilton’s version comes from an album he recorded sloppily on purpose…) With this laudatory track record, it was only a matter of time before Keene did a whole album of covers.
His musical roots lie largely in the post-punk of bands like Television and early Echo and the Bunnymen (represented on Excitement at Your Feet by “Guiding Light” and “Puppet”, respectively). Yet, the British invasion bands of his youth had as much, or more, of an influence on him. Keene has mentioned in interviews how much of an impact the Who had for him. From the cover art of this collection (which looks suspiciously similar to the cover of the Who’s Tommy) to the title, which references the lyrics of the Who’s “See Me, Feel Me” (“Listening to you, I get the music / Gazing at you, I get the heat / Following you, I climb the mountain / I get excitement at your feet”), this influence is readily apparent. If there’s a more apt and clever title for a covers album, I haven’t heard it. But Keene doesn’t even cover “See Me, Feel Me”. No, this a record of deep cuts, the non-obvious choices. “Much Too Much” from the Who’s 1965 debut is what Keene chooses here, and it’s a faithful (if sonically updated) take on the song.
Two other songs Keene tackles also hail from this mid-1960’s time period. In his cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Ride on Baby”, organ replaces the harpsichord and autoharp, but otherwise it’s as head-bopping as the Stones’. Donovan’s “Catch the Wind” is perhaps the most unexpected and unusual choice on this collection. Keene’s acoustic, Dylan-esque delivery shows a range not previously explored in his own material. There’s also some folky harmonica on this one, giving the cover some extra allegiance to its forbearer.
Still another left field cover is the Bee Gee’s bitter baroque pop “I Laugh in Your Face”, from their 1969 album Odessa. At its core, a stark piano ballad, it once again shows a musical side of Keene not usually represented in his own material. Building and building to each chorus of “I laugh in your face and I’m right”, the song becomes a somber sing-a-long.
“Nighttime” reminds the listener of the few other acoustic songs in Keene’s catalog such as “Baby Face” and “Silent Town”. The chiming, rich quality of his electric guitar playing translates to his acoustic as well. That, combined with his assured vocals, makes “Nighttime” much less fragile than Big Star’s original. Keene released a version of this song a few years ago through the Magnet Magazine website, but this new recording is much fuller sounding than that one, which sounded more like a demo.
“Choking Tara”, by his recent recording partner Robert Pollard, is a song of more recent vintage. When Pollard’s band Guided by Voices originally released the song in the mid-1990’s it was very raw sounding, with only voice and stark electric guitar. It was also really short, at a minute and a half in length. Keene gives the song a makeover, fleshing it out and filling in the cracks, making it longer and more satisfying in the process.
Covers albums by their nature are self-indulgent. In the end, they’re judged by the song choices and what the artist brings to the piece. Optimally, the artist adds to the song by showing another side of it, bringing their own personality to it. Keene’s chosen a broad swath of songs, and expanded his range a bit here. He’s got such a distinctive voice and guitar style that the works covered often end up sounding like Tommy Keene songs. Yet, this isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it ends up a particularly strong and diverse Keene album to add to his resume.
With Excitement at Your Feet, plus the recent career retrospective Tommy Keene: You Hear Me (which also gets its name from a line by the Who – “Tommy can you hear me?”) and the vinyl re-release of 1982’s Strange Alliance in June, we find Keene looking to the past. But, that’s to be expected from an artist this far into his career. The care and passion brought to these covers bodes well for another three decades (or so) of music for Tommy Keene. I’m looking forward to the next album already.