Just as both camps will be attracted by the gorgeous color packaging of You Hear Me, newcomers to the music of Tommy Keene who hear the double CD set will no doubt be as impressed by the consistency of this Retrospective as long-standing fans. Yet the most beautiful virtue of this music may be that it’s equally satisfying to play in the background or sit down and listen closely.
Arguably the unsung hero of American rock and roll, Tommy Keene hardly uses anything more than guitars (acoustic and electric) bass, drums, voices and an occasional touch of keyboards on his own songs, but he invariably avoids the derivative repetition( though naysayers may still accuse him of sameness). The sounds of guitars pealing, harmony vocals billowing and drums echoing on “Back Again” or “Your Heart Beats Alone” turn up over and over, but the performances never lack vigor and in fact may contain more mojo as the set progresses.
The man clearly loves guitars of all kinds, so that when he utilizes acoustic instruments, mixed with electric as on ”Paper Words and Lies,” he amps up the force of the arrangement rather than sapping its strength. There are also enough examples of balladry, such as the acoustic piano-based “Underworld” and “A Way Out,” to bring true dynamics to this anthology of Keene’s: such comparatively quiet performances deliver an emotional impact comparable to the visceral force of rockers “My Mother Looked Like Marilyn Monroe.”.
A principle of simplicity applies to Tommy’s lyrics as much as his use of instruments. Plain language, sharp turns of phrase and vivid images tell stories (“Lives Become Lies”) and depict characters (“Warren in the 60’s”) that should resonate with listeners’ ears and heart. Keene’s intrinsic optimism doesn’t belie some melancholy–always an undertone in his voice–but the darker shades effectively contrast the brighter and vice-versa,
Certainly Tommy Keene has grown emotionally and musically during the twenty-six year period covered by You Hear Me, but even in the earliest recordings, such as “Back to Zero,” there is no sense of immaturity or lack of craft any more than ennui or self-consciousness arises on the most recent recordings including “Leaving Your World Behind.” Kudos to the sorely uncredited soul who plundered the archives to compile Retrospective 1983-2009 (and the ten-track collection of unreleased material available on preorder): it has the discernible flow of any one of Tommy Keene’s better studio albums.