I came through the back door when it came to discovering the music of power-pop mastermind Tommy Keene, probably like many others. I only became knowledgeable of the man and his music through an album that he recorded with another indie pop-rock fiend, Robert Pollard. That album is known as the Keene Brothers’ Blues and Boogie Shoes, and it is probably most famously known as being one of three albums the prolific Pollard issued on the same day back in 2006. Blues and Boogie Shoes was a bit underappreciated by at least one reviewer when it came out, who cited its soaring jangle pop as “the missing link between indie-rock and adult contemporary.” However, as an album, it holds up fairly well and it is certainly one of Pollard’s better side projects, if not one of Pollard’s better albums period. The album, quite simply, rocks, even if it is a little glossily produced.
I pretty much thought that my appreciation for Tommy Keene would begin and end with Blues and Boogie Shoes seeing that I’m more of rabid Pollard fan (though one who is finding it harder and harder to justify keeping up with the man’s pace at releasing things). However, one day when I was living in Toronto, Canada, a few years ago, I happened to spy a copy of Keene’s 1986 major-label debut on Geffen Records, Songs From the Film, in a used vinyl record bin in the basement of an excellent shop called Sonic Boom. Seeing that it was a few bucks, and I was curious, I picked it up. It has not exactly been an album that I’ve played often – not because it’s horrible, but because the sameness of the tempo of that record didn’t, for me, hold up to repeated listening. You hear one song off that record, and you’ve pretty much heard them all. Or so I used to think, before hearing the compilation Tommy Keene You Hear Me.
For listeners like me, who only have a casual experience with the music of Tommy Keene, the small Second Motion Records, who have or are about to re-release material from the likes of Swervedriver and the Church, have issued a two-disc, 41-song collection of Keene’s back catalog with the awkward title Tommy Keene You Hear Me, a Retrospective, 1983-2009. This collection is certainly not devoted to the obsessive Keene listener, who have followed his progression from minor to major back to minor label, as they will probably have virtually all of these songs. The only previously-unreleased track on this album is an acoustic reworking of a latter-day tune called “Black & White New York”. That hardly justifies putting down money for the same songs all over again. However, as much of Keene’s back catalogue is out of print and hard to find, often commanding exorbitant amounts on eBay, it is a perfect introduction for the curious and uninitiated. That is, so long as trudging your way through 41 songs during the course of two-and-a-half hours is what you feel you can handle in discovering this underappreciated and undervalued musician’s musician. While there is an exhaustive amount of material presented here, it is by no means comprehensive. Missing from this compilation are songs from Keene’s 1982 self-released debut Strange Alliance, owing to the fact that Keene is quoted in the liner notes accompanying this set as thinking they are “crap”.
One interesting thing to note is that Tommy Keene, in recent years, has come out as an openly gay musician. This fact might strike one as a bit strange considering that Keene is considered to be a bit of a master of the power pop genre – with all of its heterosexual attachments to songs about fast cars, cold beer, good times and loose women. In fact, Keene comes off sounding like a gruffer version of the late Alex Chilton vocally at times, and his influences go back as far the Byrds and the Raspberries. However, like Bob Mould, Keene sidesteps the issue of gender and sexuality in his lyrics by using “you” and “our” as pronouns. Ultimately, Keene is a popster at heart, stating in the liner notes that his songs are hardly groundbreaking: “It’s just fun. It’s good music and good songs.” Indeed, with this overview, there is plenty of good music and good, if not great, songs.
Disc One is mainly relegated to Keene’s ‘80s output, first on small independent labels, then his two-album stint with Geffen Records. (This is probably the place that most listeners would be the most familiar with Keene’s material outside of the Keene Brothers, as some of these songs got played on the radio and on MTV.) Disc Two is culled from Keene’s latter-day albums on indie labels, after he was spit out by the mainstream corporate machine. The midsection of the first disc is relegated to Songs From The Film. It is the genius of the compilation that by surrounding these songs in chronological order with what came before and what came after, it helped me grow to accept these songs as not being merely one-note. The songs seem accentuated somehow with the context that Tommy Keene always had a particular formula and stuck with it throughout his career. Keene’s songs are usually mid-to-high tempo, with a driving rock beat, and have a jingle-jangle guitar sound that attempts to outshine Roger McGuinn. However, thanks to the glory of sequencing, I can now more greatly appreciate the minute variations from his formula found among the songs. How did I blur together the airy, stated ballad “Underworld” with the rollicking bar room stomper “Places That Are Gone”, both off Songs From the Film? How did I miss that the fiery “Kill Your Sons”, which Keene has tended to end his encores with, was a Lou Reed cover? How could I believe that this compilation, on first blush, would be 41 variations on the same theme, much like I initially and mistakenly thought that Songs From the Film was simply the same song over and over again?
Much like his work with Pollard on Blues and Boogie Shoes, Keene has been a collaborator throughout his quarter-century working in the power-pop genre. This compilation shows just how much Keene has been influenced by his contemporaries, as much as the other way around. On these discs, you will find the sublime mandolin-driven ballad “A Way Out”, which features a performance from R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, and the punchy “When Our Vows Break”, co-written with Jules Shear (who is most famous, to me, for hosting the first few episodes of the MTV series Unplugged). Additionally, the late Jay Bennett (to whom this set is dedicated) and Jeff Tweedy of Wilco even show up on a couple of tracks to, respectively, play guitar and add harmony vocals.
These songs don’t overwhelm you with their catchiness, but rather sneak up on you and embed themselves into your brain when you least expect them to. However, there are a few quibbles. First of all, nowhere in the liner notes will you find any mention of which songs came from which album, which means that if you happen to become a Keene obsessive after hearing them, you’re going to have to do some research to figure out where the tracks come from. (Granted, this isn’t too hard considering that the music is presented in chronological order. Still … .) Secondly, while much of the material here is top-notch, attesting to Keene’s strengths as a songwriter, the compilation does feel a bit on the long side. (What’s more, the liner notes written by Chicago journalist Matt Hickey suggest that there’s enough stellar material to fill a third disc!) It’s a little much considering that this album is tailor-made for the neophyte. Some unreleased material or new songs would have been greatly appreciated in lieu of some of the tracks here, to make the set more relevant to those who know the work of Keene inside and out. The argument could also be made that the compilation would be better served by being winnowed down to a much more manageable, and possibly even more potent, single-disc set. However, this is a great introduction to a man who has been neglected by and large by the general population. If you love bands like Cheap Trick or the sweet sounds of Matthew Sweet, and you want to expand your knowledge of the power-pop genre, you would do no wrong in picking this one up. Tommy Keene was and still is a vital musician, which this set so aptly proves.