Tommy Keene: In The Late Bright


Tommy Keene is one of America’s two great practitioners of power pop along with Matthew Sweet. Yet while the latter, as befits his name, anticipates the best is yet to come, there’s an ironic contrast with Keene’s moniker: his tunes carry an ever so slight but nevertheless palpable air of melancholy.

As implied in the cryptic title of his new album, however, Tommy’s wan world-weariness is shot through with a proportionately resolute attitude. When he sings, "I can’t feel any more," there’s a positive ambiguity at work: he’s suggesting the depth of his feeling is at its maximum not its minimum.

Cursory listens to the quarter-century of Tommy Keene’s recordings may elicit the clichéd knee-jerk response "They all sound the same" and to a certain extent that’s true. But the sturdy rhythm section that dominates In the Late Bright carries less polish than usual on tracks like "Save This Harmony," and the whole band maintains a genuine garage-rock edge most of the new cd, which plays off nicely with the chime ‘n’ jangle on a cut like “Realize Your Mind.”

That insistent feel and relatively harsh texture doesn’t preclude Keene’s customary blend of acoustic and electric guitars though. "A Secret Life of Stories" finds the former merely seasoning the plugged-in rhythm chords but actually acts as the foundation of "Save This Harmony." Tommy knows how to effectively decorate his arrangements for his decidedly traditional use of the guitars/bass/drums lineup too. Listen, for instance, to the way bell-like piano tones on resonate within " Nighttime Crime Scene."

 A rootsier use of the ivories does recall the Rolling Stones on  "Goodbye Jane," and that’s no less effective than power-chording on "The Right Time to Fly" which brings to mind early Who. Yet Tommy Keene’s music isn’t uniformly derivative in any respect. Rather, he takes inspiration from the lifeblood sources of contemporary rock, so that there may be no more astute tribute to The Byrds’ progressive instincts than the pure instrumental "Elevated," where angular guitars criss-cross each other as well as the genres of blues and Indian music.

Such is the intelligence that distinguishes this latest example of Tommy Keene’s deeply felt rock and roll.  The savor faire in his songs and his performance of them removes all the pejorative connotations from that three-word genre tag.

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