Tommy Keene delved deep into his record collection in planning Excitement at Your Feet ( Second Motion Records), his 10th studio effort and first LP of cover songs, due for release Sept. 17. Those who have followed Tommy’s career know his definitive versions of Alex Chilton’s “Hey Little Child” and Lou Reed’s “Kill Your Sons.” But what to expect from an entire Keene covers album? The order of the day is deep album tracks rather than top hits. He takes on some heavy hitters — the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Bee Gees — but apart from Donovan’s “Catch the Wind,” none of Excitement’s 11 tracks ever troubled the U.S. singles chart.
So Excitement is largely about the artist’s personal musical inspiration. Tommy pays tribute to his aforementioned British Invasion heroes, but also his East Coast punk/new wave roots with covers of Television and Mink Deville. On a more contemporary note, he also tips his hat to Keene Brothers partner Robert Pollard with a cover of Guided By Voices’ “Choking Tara.” Get ready to dig into this idiosyncratic survey of great rock and roll from the past half century.
(Excitement is not Tommy’s only covers record to be released this year. His version of Slim Dunlap’s “Nowheres Near” was released as the flip side of Lucinda Williams’ take on Dunlap’s “Partners in Crime.” The very limited 7-inch singles were auctioned to raise money for the ailing former Replacements guitarist. Other “Songs for Slim” participants are the Replacements (in the ’90s, Tommy was part of ex-Replacement Paul Westerberg’s touring band), Jakob Dylan, Steve Earle and others. And in yet other release news, Tommy’s extremely rare first LP, Strange Alliance, has been reissued on vinyl by the Austin-based label 12XU, which also reissued Tommy’s first 7-inch single, “Back to Zero” b/w “Mr. Roland.”)
Although a covers LP is something of a departure for Tommy, it continues his string of formidable albums starting with 2006’s Crashing the Ether. But for the rest of the story, you have to go back to 1984, when a six-song platter of pop perfection titled Places That Are Gone (Dolphin) put Tommy Keene onto 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, not only establishing him as a unique singer-songwriter, but also as a guitarist with a sound as distinctive as Pete Townshend or Johnny Marr.
Keene made enough noise in the early ’80s to get the majors involved, and in 1986 he released Songs From the Film on Geffen. Produced by Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick, the album featured two MTV videos, “Listen to Me” and a re-recording of Places That Are Gone’s title track, and spent 12 weeks on Billboard’s Top 200. The 1998 CD reissue of Songs also includes one of the all-time great Keene rockers, “Run Now,” with inspired rhythm section work from drummer Doug Tull and bassist Ted Niceley, plus a terrific extended guitar solo. The singer as well as the song appeared in the Anthony Michael Hall movie Out of Bounds.
After releasing the Run Now EP in 1986, the original Tommy Keene group, which also included guitarist Billy Connelly, disbanded. Tommy headed down to Ardent Studios in Memphis to record with producers John Hampton and Joe Hardy. The result was Based on Happy Times (Geffen, 1989). The ironically titled disc is the darkest album in the Keene catalog. Although his best material has always been infused with melancholia, Happy Times tracks like “The Biggest Conflict” and “A Way Out” reveal a more fatalistic outlook. The guitars are heavier, there is less jangle, and there aren’t as many hooky vocal harmonies. It is a beautifully crafted, sometimes brooding, arty rock record.
In 1996, Tommy released Ten Years After (Matador), his first full-length album of all new material in seven years. Produced by Keene and recorded by pop music wunderkind Adam Schmitt, it contains classic pop hooks and the loudest guitars to date. For his next effort, Isolation Party (Matador), Keene recruited an all-star cast, getting some fine instrumental and vocal performances from former Gin Blossom Jesse Valenzuela and Wilco’s Jay Bennett and Jeff Tweedy. A live disc called Showtunes (Parasol), released in 2000, was followed up in 2001 with The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down for the SpinArt label. Tommy used his next effort, Drowning: A Tommy Keene Miscellany (Not Lame), to clean out his closets of 20 years’ worth of rarities, demos and unreleased sessions. One of the best hodgepodge records you’ll ever hear, more than one critic felt it bested many greatest-hits packages.
Back on the road in 2004, Tommy and his band joined Guided By Voices on the East and West Coast legs of their farewell tour. Apart from some choice gigs, the shows also led to Tommy joining Pollard as a member of his post GBV band, The Ascended Masters, for their 2006 U.S. tour and a limited-edition live LP, Moon (Merge). The year also saw the release of Crashing the Ether (Eleven Thirty), which was performed and recorded primarily by Tommy himself at home with drums by John Richardson and contributions from regular Keene band members and friends. Sonically, the album is dazzling, with big drums and open, ringing guitars, and lyrically it was arguably a great leap forward.
The follow-up to Crashing the Ether was Blues and Boogie Shoes, an LP with Robert Pollard under the Keene Brothers moniker. Although side projects can sometimes be less than wholehearted efforts, songs such as “The Naked Wall” or “Death of the Party” — as good as any Keene or Pollard have written together or separately — show that neither artist held anything back.
2009’s In the Late Bright (Second Motion) displayed the full range of Tommy’s song craft over 11 tracks. The album kicked into high gear with “Late Bright,” a minor-key rocker that gets its tense and dramatic work done in two minutes flat. From there on out, the album delivered a fan-friendly collection of melodic hooks, vocal harmonies, inventive chord progressions and great guitar playing.
The artist summed up his solo output through 2009 with Tommy Keene You Hear Me: A Retrospective 1983-2009 (Second Motion), a two-CD collection holding over 40 of his best tunes (including an unreleased acoustic take of Crashing the Ether’s “Black and White New York”). Even then, fans debated what he included vs. what he left off — further proof of the man’s enduring songwriting prowess.
In 2011, Keene showed that his retrospective wasn’t a career capper, by releasing arguably his best record, Behind the Parade. Like its predecessors, the disc affirmed his pop proficiency, mastery of his craft and his ability to ensure instant accessibility given the benefit of emphatic hooks, irresistible refrains and the kind of vibrant, jangly melodies that bring to mind a distinctly ’60s sensibility. Tommy may once have worshiped at the altar of the Beatles, Byrds and Beach Boys, but with Parade, his synthesis of sounds transcended these retro references to become something wholly fresh and exhilarating. Tommy’s recent output suggests that he is like an athlete rediscovering his prime, only in this artist’s case, he never left it.
Tommy will tour the U.S. this fall behind Excitement at Your Feet.
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