[8 March 2009]
It’s hard to believe it’s been 25 years since Tommy Keene broke through with the Places that Are Gone EP, the power-pop touchstone—all six tracks of it—that helped ensure that genre’s post-1977-82 golden-age relevance. Less hard-to-fathom is the quality control Keene’s exerted over his rich discography: fans may have their faves, but there’s nary a dud in the bunch. And of course anyone who can rein in Bob Pollard as effectively as Keene did on the Keene Brothers’ 2006 Blues and Boogie Shoes, one of Pollard’s better post-GBV projects, deserves some sort of special recognition. But and so, it’s 2009 and Keene returns with In the Late Bright, which picks up where ‘06’s Crashing the Ether left off and proves Keene remains a vital guitar hero today as much as he was in 1984.
Keene’s historically been a sucker for a little diametric opposition in his album titles—Crashing the Ether, Sleeping on a Roller Coaster, In the Late Bright; it gives him wiggle room to run from sprightly stomper to introspective midtempo number and back again. And at the risk of further shorthand, all of Keene’s tricks are deployed on Late Bright—the jangly guitar and organ of “A Secret Life of Stories”, the noir-from-the-title-on-down “Nighttime Crime Scene”, the fuzzed-out “Goodbye Jane” (which is not a spelling-corrected Slade cover, sorry)—to their usual winning effect. Tommy Keene’s mug on an album cover is a guaranteed sign of quality.
As for trying to decide which half of the titular dichotomy has a stronger pull on Keene this time around, he tips his hand on the album’s bookends with a claim on the opening “Late Bright” that the “night time world has lost its appeal”, and the soaring closer “Hide Your Eyes”, but still crawls around enough in the shadows on the aforementioned “Nighttime Crime Scene” and the anguished/angry “Please Don’t Come Around” to add a dark edge to his otherwise-polished pop.
The knock on power-pop guys that they tend to tread the same sonic ground from album to album—heck, any track off Places That Are Gone would fit snugly on this new record—but that’s what the genre (and its fanboy [read: fan-middle-aged-man] base) dictates. And yes, Keene has often been guilty of this over the past quarter-century… except when he isn’t and totally defies expectations with the five-minute quasi-raga guitar-god jam, “Elevated”. I don’t think the dude from Badfinger ever did that.