Tommy Keene has many admirable qualities, the best being his knack for creating emotive melodies that immediately appeal to fans of quality power-pop. Back in the mid-Eighties, especially on 1984’s Places That Are Gone, he looked set to become a one-man Replacements. Songs like the evocative “Places That Are Gone” and “Back to Zero Now” found Keene pushing his thin voice to the limit and singing words to which everybody could relate. But while The Replacements went on to etch out a significant place in modern rock history, Keene — at least to date — has never gained such critical respect. Granted, he deserves a lot more attention than he’s garnered up to now, but his work has also not always lived up to his early songs’ initial promise. Crashing the Ether is better than a lot of Keene’s output over the last few decades, but it’s just not the masterpiece some of the singer / songwriter’s best songs have hinted at.
Musically, Keene deserves high marks for what he’s done with this mainly homemade album. “I’d always thought, the more people I brought into a solo record the more personality it would have”, he’s said of making it. “This time, I tried the Prince routine, and it was such a freeing experience. Every night, I could go and practice in my home studio and overdub any instrument until I got it right. It’s really liberating.” The song “Wishing” is a memorable jangle rock song, and “Quit That Scene” features perfectly placed psychedelic guitars at the track’s end. The harmonica on “Warren in the 60s” is also a nice touch. In fact, “Quit That Scene” includes a few guitar fills that point directly back to The Smiths’ Johnny Marr.
Conspicuously missing, however, are Keene’s relatable lyrics from yesteryear. “Warren in the 60s” is intriguing, as it’s presumably about actor Warren Beatty, but the plot is just too darn difficult to figure out. Exactly what is the point Keene is trying to make? Would it have been good or bad to be Beatty in the 60s? It’s hard to tell. In fact, few of these lyrics even jump out at the listener. Keene sings, “Nothing warm or sunny here, / It’s just that I fucked up” during “Quit That Scene”. But it’s this track’s surprising use of profanity that makes it stand out, more than anything else. The best line on the album occurs during “Lives Become Lies” when Keene rhymes the song’s title with “when your eyes become wise”.
This release somehow doesn’t add up to a successful whole, although it’s tough to narrow down Keene’s specific faults. Maybe he’s just not enunciating clearly enough for us to pick out his lyrical jewels — assuming there are any. Whatever the case, there’s little for the listener to latch onto with this CD.
The tragedy of it all is that Keene is capable of greatness; it’s this potential that keeps fans coming back for more. And if you don’t listen too closely to this album, he at least sounds just fine. He has one of those voices that reminds you of a man that never lost his youthful earnestness. Everything he sings comes straight from the heart. And this makes you want to pull for him every time. He convinces you that he means every word.
The hard truth might be that the title of Places That Are Gone may have become Keene’s career story. Those sparks of inspiration that first propelled him into the hearts and minds of serious music fans may be extinguished forever. Or maybe we just expected too much from him. Keene may have made an unintentional mistake when he covered an Alex Chilton song early on, because it’s not really fair to expect him to live up to Big Star’s high standards. We don’t even expect such greatness from Chilton himself anymore.
No matter the explanation, Crashing the Ether mostly just crashes and burns.