Eleven full-lengths, four EPs, three compilations and one live album into the game, Tommy Keene is in the midst of a creative roll that, in the space of just six years, has yielded four studio albums — five, if you count 2010 career overview Tommy Keene You Hear Me: A Retrospective 1983-2009. The rock savant’s new offering, Laugh in the Dark, is the latest in a fruitful partnership with North Carolina’s Second Motion Records label, comprises ten fresh Keene nuggets meticulously assembled over the course of six months, a period in which his “unobvious covers” record Excitement at Your Feet saw release to unanimous critical acclaim.
Laugh in the Dark, while characterized as always by Keene’s distinctive flair for melodic guitar-driven rock and brawny power pop, marks a subtle shift in the artist’s songwriting modus operandi in that unlike previously, the material is all of recent vintage. As he explains, “There were always songs left over from the last project or ideas that hadn’t been fleshed out. What I’ve done in the past before starting to write for a new record would be to demo a cover or resurrect an old song of mine that I liked but never made the final cut for an album. But all the songs on Laugh in the Dark were started and finished last year from April through October. I started with a completely fresh slate on this one.”
Indeed, Keene cites the experience of doing an entire album’s worth of others’ material as being key to that “fresh slate” — and possibly even opening up some creative avenues to explore. “That’s really true,” says Keene. “Somehow, making the covers album freed me up to not be so overly hypersensitive as to my influences. In fact, I didn’t even worry at all about songs, melodies, etc., that might borrow too obviously from my main muses. Hence you have a direct concoction of the Beatles meet the Who by way of Big Star, with a little Stones for good measure.”
To that end, Laugh in the Dark sounds utterly unrestricted while still remaining true to Keene’s lifelong inspirations. Opening track “Out of My Mind,” with its brash power chords and anthemic vibe, subtly conjures vintage Who, while “Last of the Twilight Girls” has a Radio City-worthy opening riff and a succinct-yet-meaty solo to remind listeners of Keene’s prowess as a lead guitarist. Likewise, the title tune’s jangly invocations and wistful choruses speak to his instincts as a pop classicist. “Go Back Home,” with its bluesy acoustic framework spiked by sleek slide guitar, suggests a marriage between Led Zeppelin III and Let It Bleed. And album closer “All Gone Away” is overtly Beatlesque, from its “Dear Prudence”-inspired melody to the psychedelic guitar/keyboard flourishes to a generally epic feel. (Watch for this one at Keene concerts as a show closer as well.)
It’s still a uniquely Keene project from start to finish, however, awash in buoyant melodies as well as introspective — and at times, dark — lyrical ruminations. “I have had some major upheavals in my life the last few years,” confesses Keene, and it’s not hard to detect echoes of those issues if one listens closely. “When I’m writing an album I look for a beginning, a middle and an end,” he continues, “not necessarily in a thematic sense, but I do try to get songs that represent where I am at the present time and hope they feel consistent.”
Keene, previously of D.C.-area combo the Razz, hit the national scene in 1982 with Strange Alliance. Then in 1984 a six-song platter of pop perfection titled Places That Are Gone (Dolphin) landed him high on the CMJ charts and atop the Village Voice Pazz & Jop EP of the Year poll. Blatantly romantic, unapologetically melodic, bittersweet but absolutely invigorating, it still stands as a powerful statement.
He made enough noise in the early ’80s to get the majors involved, leading to 1986’s Songs From the Film (Geffen) Produced by Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick, the album spawned two MTV videos and spent 12 weeks on Billboard’s Top 200. The accompanying Run Now EP led to the singer as well as its title track appearing in the Anthony Michael Hall movie Out of Bounds.
For 1989’s Based on Happy Times (Geffen) Keene headed down to Ardent Studios in Memphis to record with producers John Hampton and Joe Hardy. The ironically titled disc is the darkest album in the Keene catalog, with heavier guitars, fewer jangles, and a more brooding, fatalistic outlook. Following that he took a break from recording, eventually signing with Matador for 1996’s Ten Years After and 1998’s Isolation Party. (During this period he also briefly spent time in Paul Westerberg’s touring band.) Between 2000 and 2004 he released a live disc called Showtunes (Parasol), The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down (SpinArt) and rarities/demos/unreleased-tracks collection Drowning: A Tommy Keene Miscellany (Not Lame).
Back on the road in 2004, a trek opening for Guided By Voices led to his joining Robert Pollard in ’06 as a touring member of his post-GBV band the Ascended Masters and, two years later, Boston Spaceships. Meanwhile, 2006 also saw the release of Crashing the Ether (Eleven Thirty), recorded primarily by Keene himself at home, along with Blues and Boogie Shoes, a collaboration with Pollard under the Keene Brothers moniker. An initial effort for Second Motion, 2009’s In the Late Bright, was soon joined by Tommy Keene You Hear Me: A Retrospective 1983-2009, a two-CD collection holding over 40 of his best tunes. Then in 2011 he delivered the masterful Behind the Parade, boasting emphatic hooks, irresistible refrains and vibrant, jangly melodies with a distinctly ’60s sensibility.
That in turn led to 2013’s aforementioned Excitement at Your Feet. Those who had followed Keene’s career already knew his definitive versions of Alex Chilton’s “Hey Little Child” and Lou Reed’s “Kill Your Sons.” Here he tackled influences ranging from the Stones, Donovan, Bee Gees and the Who to Big Star, Echo & the Bunnymen, Television and Roxy Music, but rather than choosing obvious material he opted for deep cuts and lesser-known gems.
With the arrival of Laugh in the Dark Tommy Keene offered yet more evidence that he is like an athlete rediscovering his prime. Only in this artist’s case, he never left it. Incidentally, the album title comes from a ride at an amusement park on the outskirts of his old stomping ground of Washington D.C. — the same park where the cover photo for 1984’s Places That Are Gone was shot. “See, I am consistent!” he concludes, smiling at the memory.
Watch that clockwork consistency in it’s glorious live action when Tommy hits the road in October 2016 to support the release of the second volume of “Showtunes” – his compilations of live recordings.
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