Tommy Keene – Laugh in the Dark (ALBUM REVIEW)

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tommykeen5For all intents and purposes, Tommy Keene’s albums all sound the same yet sound fresh and invigorating from one to the other.  Recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis (as was 1989’s Based on Happy Times), Laugh in the Dark is no exception to that self-imposed  rule (the Washington DC native has never experimented much at all), right down to the guitars that blaze open the album with “Out of My Mind.”

The equally pronounced drum backbeat of long-time accompanist John Richardson buttresses that cut and gives way to a seamless segue into “Dead Heloise” which introduces yet another familiar motif of Keene albums: layered acoustic guitars that mirror equally lush vocal harmonies. So-called power pop music—a genre Tommy helped create back in the early Eighties—usually isn’t so noisy as this music as it appears here in the form of “Last of the Twilight Girls,” nor does it contain the same quotient of bittersweet. Keene is nothing if not healthily detached from his past, no doubt why he can continue to make records so absolutely free of self-consciousness.

Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the title-song of this record is the one track reaffirming the consistency of Tommy Keene’s work for near three decades. His first extended guitar solo appears here too, prompting the question of why he doesn’t take more of them. Except that, to assume that approach might well bring recordings as sparkling as this one to a level of predictability he otherwise avoids. The somewhat abbreviated total running time of the album (less than forty minutes) thus becomes reflective of the economy with which Keene works, rather than any indication of a lack of ideas; all these songs are of fairly recent vintage, so their collection here further implies the logic at work on Laugh in the Dark.

And one of the main means by which Keene works is his subtle approach to arrangement and production. Inclusion of an organ part in “I Belong to You” (like all instruments besides drums and bass of Brad Quinn, played and recorded by Keene himself at home) isn’t at all obvious, during the bulk of the track, but it’s the last audible note as the cut fades into “Alone in These Modern Times”—which might well have been designated as the title of this album as it combines all of the themes, philosophical and instrumental that appear during the course of these ten tracks.

Songs sufficiently infectious (and intelligent) to sing along to are rare indeed, but “I Want It To Be Over” gives the lie to that cultural shortcoming even as it’s earmarked by another  tuneful guitar solo, the pithy likes of which the young George Harrison would be proud. As would the late Beatle of Keene’s interweaving of acoustic guitars and a swooping slide within “Go Back Home.” Like the concluding cut that immediately follows, “All Gone Away,” there’s an implicit statement of purpose within those songs that remains the fundamental virtue of Tommy Keene’s work, one that, as with all truly distinctive artists, never turns hollow.

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