Like so many other talented American power pop energizers, Tommy Keene has neither lost faith in the magic of brash/sensitive tuneful music or enjoyed any appreciable commercial success from it. A versatile guitarist, gifted songwriter and appealing singer, the Bethesda, Maryland native graduated from Washington DC’s new wave Razz (which also contained bassist Ted Nicely, who was a stalwart sideman to Keene while becoming an eminent producer on his own). He went solo at the start of the ’80s and has been releasing sterling records on and off ever since. An underappreciated member of the Southeastern fraternity that numbers Matthew Sweet, Chris Stamey, Don Dixon, Tim Lee and Mitch Easter, Keene spent some ’90s time on the road in Velvet Crush, but returned to his own career in mid-decade with Ten Years After, the first new full-length to bear his name since the end of a major-label fling in 1989.
As the jacket blurb on Strange Alliance attests, Keene’s music does bear some superficial resemblance to the Only Ones and early U2, though without their depth or charisma. (Audible influences also include the Beatles and the Byrds.) The first album contains eight immediately likable, if melancholic, tunes, every one a winner. (A later pressing adds a subsequent single.) Keene’s reedy voice, chiming, arpeggiated guitar chords and occasional piano make for a lightweight but appealing blend.
Back Again (Try…) offers two cool covers, recorded live at the Rat in Boston, and two studio originals. Roxy Music’s “All I Want Is You” — why didn’t anyone think of doing that sooner? — and the Stones’ “When the Whip Comes Down” show Keene’s rock’n’roll abilities, while the title track and “Safe in the Light” are in more of a Tom Petty power pop vein, and quite striking at that. Places That Are Gone mixes five originals with Alex Chilton’s “Hey! Little Child.” All of the memorable melodies are underscored by strong vocal harmonies, yet the delivery retains a gutsy, even abrasive, edge.
Finally signed to a major label, Keene hooked up with producer Geoff Emerick (Badfinger, Split Enz, Nick Heyward) to make Songs From the Film, a further refinement of his virtues with occasionally more substantial lyrics. The standout is a different version of “Places That Are Gone,” but the new compositions are good and sturdy in their own right. The sole non-original is a weirdly “normal” version of Lou Reed’s “Kill Your Sons.” The 1998 CD appends the entire Run Now EP, liner notes by power pop expert John Borack and several unreleased tracks, including a live-in-the-studio cover of the Flamin’ Groovies’ “Teenage Head.”
Run Now adds another enjoyable chapter to the Keene canon, despite the occasional unease in what he says and the way that he says it (“I Don’t Feel Right at All”). The closest to a dud is the commercial title track, which is not offensive, just inconsequential. (That number was produced by Bob Clearmountain; the rest was overseen by the team of T-Bone Burnett and Don Dixon.) The EP ends with a good live version of “Kill Your Sons.”
The growing tension and melancholy in Keene’s lyrics belies the melodic power and contagiously confident sound of Based on Happy Times, an excellent, overcast album that alternately resembles Pleased to Meet Me-era Replacements and the darker side of Let’s Active. Keene’s songwriting (with some assistance from Jules Shear) has never been better; the playing and production (by bassist Joe Hardy, drummer John Hampton and Keene) is spot-on, except for the strings that intrude in several arrangements. Pete Buck guests on a pair of tunes, including the record’s sole stinker: an unpleasantly bluesy cover of the Beach Boys’ “Our Car Club.”
The Real Underground looks like a Keene best-of but isn’t. The album draws from only two previous records, and is predominantly made up of otherwise unreleased tunes. In addition to all six songs from Places That Are Gone and the two studio numbers on Back Again (Try…), the 23-song collection includes top-quality leftovers of various vintages, including outtakes from the five-song Sleeping on a Roller Coaster. (The informative and enthusiastic liner notes don’t precisely detail the material’s sources, but given Keene’s modest and steady approach over the years, it hardly matters.) Highlights include “Places That Are Gone,” “The Real Underground,” “Mr. Roland,” “Dull Afternoon,” “Hey Man,” the Who’s “Tattoo” (sung over solo guitar) and a precise full band re-creation of the Flamin Groovies’ “Shake Some Action.”
Taking tips from the louder, punkier pop enthusiasts who have come of age since he was young, Keene replaces guitar jangle with a lush fuzz roar on Ten Years After, recorded as a trio by Adam Schmitt. Armed with original songs that are as winningly tuneful and incisive as ever (and an unlisted Who cover at the end), Keene manages the calculated and potentially hazardous sound shift confidently, raising the energy level of his singing without blowing his top. A timely and tasteful update of Keene’s reliable skills, Ten Years After handily cleans the clocks of those who know the style but can’t deliver such high-quality substance to it.
Keene died in his sleep on November 22, 2017. He was 59.